[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Power for licensing authorities to set fees
‘(1) The Licensing Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 197 insert—
“197A Regulations about fees
(1) Subsection (2) applies where the Secretary of State makes regulations under this Act prescribing the amount of any fee.
(2) The Secretary of State may, in determining the amount of the fee, have regard, in particular, to—
(a) the costs of any licensing authority to whom the fee is to be payable which are referable to the discharge of the function to which the fee relates, and
(b) the general costs of any such licensing authority;
and may determine an amount by reference to fees payable to, and costs of, any such licensing authorities, taken together.
(3) A power under this Act to prescribe the amount of a fee includes power to provide that the amount of the fee is to be determined by the licensing authority to whom it is to be payable.
(4) Regulations which so provide may also specify constraints on the licensing authority’s power to determine the amount of the fee.
(5) Subsections (6) and (7)—
(a) apply where, by virtue of subsection (3), regulations provide that the amount of a fee is to be determined by a licensing authority, and
(b) are subject to any constraint imposed under subsection (4).
(6) The licensing authority—
(a) must determine the amount of the fee (and may from time to time determine a revised amount),
(b) may determine different amounts for different classes of case specified in the regulations (but may not otherwise determine different amounts for different cases), and
(c) must publish the amount of the fee as determined from time to time.
(7) In determining the amount of the fee, the licensing authority must seek to secure that the income from fees of that kind will equate, as nearly as possible, to the aggregate of—
(a) the licensing authority’s costs referable to the discharge of the function to which the fee relates, and
(b) a reasonable share of the licensing authority’s general costs;
and must assess income and costs for this purpose in such manner as it considers appropriate.
197B Regulations about fees: supplementary provision
‘(1) Subsections (2) and (3) apply for the purposes of section 197A.
(2) References to a licensing authority’s costs referable to the discharge of a function include, in particular—
(a) administrative costs of the licensing authority so far as they are referable to the discharge of the function, and
(b) costs in connection with the discharge of the function which are incurred by the licensing authority acting—
(i) under this Act, but
(ii) in a capacity other than that of licensing authority (whether that of local authority, local planning authority or any other authority).
(3) References to the general costs of a licensing authority are to costs of the authority so far as they are referable to the discharge of functions under this Act in respect of which no fee is otherwise chargeable and include, in particular—
(a) costs referable to the authority’s functions under section 5;
(b) costs of or incurred in connection with the monitoring and enforcement of Parts 7 and 8 of this Act;
(c) costs incurred in exercising functions conferred by virtue of section 197A.
(4) To the extent that they prescribe the amount of a fee or include provision made by virtue of section 197A(3) or (4), regulations may—
(a) make provision which applies generally or only to specified authorities or descriptions of authority, and
(b) make different provision for different authorities or descriptions of authority.
(5) Subsection (4) is not to be taken to limit the generality of section 197.”.
(3) In section 10(4) (sub-delegation of functions by licensing committee etc)—
(a) omit “or” at the end of paragraph (c), and
(b) after paragraph (d) insert “or
(e) any function conferred by virtue of section 197A (regulations about fees).”.’—(James Brokenshire.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause addresses the point about the local setting of licensing fees that was debated in the Public Bill Committee. I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) to the Opposition Front Bench. She will recall the discussions that we had on this point in Committee. I welcome other Members who sat on the Committee, and other hon. Members who are present.
In my response to the consultation on the Bill, I said that we intended
“to enable licensing authorities to set licensing fees based on full cost recovery”.
Since then, as I confirmed in Committee, I have been working with colleagues across Government to ensure that we achieve that aim in a way that is fair to all sides. I know that fee payers will be concerned about a change that is likely to see fee income rise overall. However, the fact is that licensing fees have not been increased, even for inflation, since the Licensing Act 2003 came into force in 2005.
The new clause does not represent a change of principle. The current fees are supposed to cover the legitimate costs of licensing authorities in discharging their functions under the 2003 Act. However, there has been widespread agreement for some time that they do not achieve that. The previous Government recognised the problem, and promised an independent review of their proposed fees as early as 2004. The independent panel published its report, known as the Elton report, in December 2006. The recommendations included an increase in fees, but no action was taken. Therefore, the question for this Government is not whether the situation needs to be addressed, but how best to address it.
We could set the fees centrally again, which would have the advantage of providing consistency for fee payers. However, I have chosen to move to set fees locally because I consider that it may be difficult to achieve a close approximation to full cost recovery with nationally set fees. Different areas do not have the same costs, and it is unavoidable that a blanket fee level would leave some councils with a deficit or provide an excessive income to others. No system is ideal, but as a matter of principle, council tax payers in areas with higher costs should not subsidise the administration of the licensing regime, and fee payers in lower-cost areas should not fund wider council activities.
Fee payers should be reassured that locally set fees will not mean that licensing authorities can set whatever fees they like. First, they will only set the level of the fee. They will not be permitted to design new fees or their own fee structure; nor will they be able to use licensing fees as an income stream. The only basis on which they will be able to set fees is to recover their costs in discharging their functions under the 2003 Act. I will issue guidance to local authorities on the setting of fees, including statutory guidance under section 182 of the 2003 Act. To ensure that costs are kept to appropriate levels, that will include guidance on the principles of good regulation, including risk-based and targeted inspection.
To provide further reassurance to fee payers, there will be a nationally set cap on fee levels. Under the new clause, that is provided for by the ability of the Secretary of State to apply constraints to the licensing authority’s ability to set fees. I intend that the level of the cap will be set in regulations after consultation. The consultation will contain a detailed impact assessment of the proposal.
In short, this measure is an important step towards ensuring that the Licensing Act 2003 works as it was intended to work, with fees fully funding licensing authorities’ administration of the Act.
As the Minister pointed out, we debated this issue in the Public Bill Committee on the basis of an Opposition amendment. I am pleased, because he has obviously listened carefully to the arguments that we made. The Opposition were clearly championing the localism agenda, which I know is close to the heart of the coalition Government, so I am pleased that they have decided, at this late stage, to bring forward an amendment of their own on the issue.
We have heard from local government that since 2005, when the regulations of the Licensing Act 2003 were implemented, the licensing system has cost council tax payers more than £100 million more than was anticipated because of the centrally set fee structure. As the Minister said, that structure does not allowing licensing authorities to set cost-neutral local charges.
As the Minister pointed out, the Government had indicated that they were considering giving licensing authorities the power to set licensing fees based on full cost recovery. I am sure that there has been considerable interdepartmental wrangling on this issue, and that that is why the new clause has been brought forward rather late in the day on Report. A number of trade organisations, the Local Government Association and others were concerned to see the original clause in the Bill, so no doubt they will be pleased to see this new clause. However, I wish to raise a number issues with the Minister.
In the current economic climate, with local authority budgets being squeezed, it needs to be clear to local authorities what funding will be available to them and what charges they will be able to set. It would be helpful if the Minister said when he believes the new fees structure will be implemented so that local authorities can begin to amend their budgets accordingly.
We also discussed at length in Committee the new fees framework for the late-night levy. It is the view of a number of organisations that a new fees structure is far preferable to the bureaucratic and complicated late-night levy scheme that is to be introduced by the Government. Only a minority of authorities would be able to utilise the late-night levy, and it clearly does not address any of the pre-midnight alcohol-related issues that we talked about at length in Committee. The LGA feels that including the new fees framework in the Bill is the quickest and simplest way to remedy the problem, rather than using the late-night levy solution.
Businesses have raised concerns about the new scheme. As I have set out, there is concern about the current economic climate. A number of small businesses are concerned that they may have to pay considerably more for licence applications and in fees to their local authority. It was clear in the amendment that we tabled in Committee, just as it is in the new clause, that fee levels would be restricted.
In Committee, I referred to what has happened under the Gambling Act 2005, which gives a discretion to set fee levels within nationally set bands. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport undertook a three-stage high-level review of the premises licence fees set by licensing authorities in 2007-08 under that scheme. The overall conclusions of the review were that there was no justifiable concern about the level of the fee maximums set by DCMS from either an industry or a licensing authority perspective, and that the introduction of the new system appeared to be working well and had produced a good spread of premises licence fees among licensing authorities, with no obvious systematic setting of fees at the maximum level. Clearly, the matter has to be kept under review. Will the Minister carry out a similar review after a short period to check what is happening up and down the country?
In Business, Innovation and Skills questions earlier today, the Secretary of State reiterated the one-in, one- out policy for regulation. Under the Bill, a number of new burdens are being placed on business, such as the vicinity test, which will have an impact on the costs of the applications process for businesses. We know from the Home Office impact assessment that the annual cost of reform to the industry will be between £21.5 million and £52.1 million, with the best estimate being £36.8 million. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers estimates that the average cost per pub will be from £1,842 to £5,280, but could double with reform of the annual fees. I am interested to know whether the Minister feels that the Bill will take any regulatory burden away from businesses in relation to fees.
Proposed subsection (6)(a) of the new clause sets out that there will be an opportunity for local authorities to change the fees from time to time. Can the Minister give any indication of what he thinks the time scale for such changes will be? For instance, does he think that fees would be set for a minimum of three years, or longer? Businesses have to plan their budgets and need to be clear about any additional costs that they will have to meet.
Will businesses in the late-night economy that already contribute time and money to schemes such as Best Bar None and community alcohol partnerships be credited with a reduction in the licence fee? Is there any opportunity for local authorities to provide such credit?
Although the Bill sets out a sufficiently flexible and clear framework, the amendment that the Opposition tabled in Committee would have provided licensing authorities with an opportunity to exercise discretion to reduce or waive fees for individual premises or events for organisations such as charities or voluntary sector groups, or for those benefiting from small business rate relief. Can the Minister confirm whether that discretion will be available to local authorities under the new clause? We need to see the details of how the fees will operate, and we look forward to seeing the draft regulations as soon as possible.
The Elton report on fees, which the Minister mentioned, made it very clear that local authorities could benefit from sharing best practice about how licence fee applications were dealt with. It made recommendations about using staff involved in related activities in local government and using good communication and mediation to avoid expensive appeals. What thought has he given to those specific recommendations, which could enable local authorities up and down the land to share best practice?
Will the Minister be clear about what local authorities will be allowed to charge for under the new clause? They clearly incur costs in dealing with licence applications, but what about the costs of the work that responsible authorities do in examining applications? I refer in particular to the involvement of the police, but the Minister will know that under clause 105, primary care trusts are also to become responsible authorities. Could any costs of their work in providing information to a licensing committee be charged for? Will the Minister also confirm whether the local authority will be able to include the costs of the work of trading standards under its enforcement powers in deciding on the level of fees?
Costings will need to be provided in a clear and transparent way, so that businesses understand exactly what they are paying for. I hope that that will be set out clearly in the guidance that the Minister referred to. Finally, when does he think the new fees regime will come in?
It is a great pleasure to continue this reunion event of the Public Bill Committee into a second day, and to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), particularly as I had the great pleasure of being able to read some of her words in the briefings that I, too, received. That helped me to follow some of the details. I do not wish to detain the House for long in speaking to the new clause.
First, I should put it on record that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, and in that capacity I am delighted to be able to welcome this change, for which the LGA has pressed for a very long time. Not for the first time, I extend my thanks to the Minister for taking this and many other issues seriously, and for the time that he has taken to have meetings outside the Bill Committee structure on a range of issues.
It is right that the system should not impose a cost on councils. The fundamental problem with the current system is that it has been a huge drain on council resources at a time when councils have many other things to do and many other calls on the public purse. Rather unusually, I am not going to blame the previous Government and say that they got it wrong on purpose. I believe that the fees were simply wrongly set, and that the required updates have not been made. I do not think the intention was to make councils pay, but that was how it evolved.
It is important that we move from the previous Government’s approach of having things set centrally to a more localist agenda. Councils should be free and have more power. For example, it should be open to a council to set fees below the cost-recovery level if, for some reason, it felt that an important thing to do. I am not entirely sure why taxpayers might feel that that was the right thing to do, but then councils should be allowed to do things for which I do not understand the reasoning. Indeed, on many occasions they do so.
I will not go through all the details of the new clause, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned them. However, I have one concern to put to the Minister. He talked about the Secretary of State’s powers and used the word “cap”. He will be aware that we had discussions yesterday on concerns about the Secretary of State’s capping powers over the police precept. I understand where the Minister is heading and why he wants such a power in this case, but can he assure me that he wants the Secretary of State’s capping power to be used rarely, and that, ideally, it should not be the driving force as it has been in other cases in local government, such as police precepts?
I am delighted to see the new clause, and I thank the Minister again on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and on behalf of the LGA as one of its vice-presidents.
Although I was not a member of the Committee, I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the all-party leisure group and a former nightclub manager. I spent a number of years in the late-night economy, and I stress that 99.9% of people who go out and enjoy their time in the evenings are good, responsible people out for an office party, leaving do or birthday party. The problems are all about dealing with the small minority.
One reason why I wished to speak was to make a point about transparency. It is in the interests of venues to have a safe environment, and the licensing authority can ensure that. I wish to make a few points about the late-night levy. I have met a number of representatives of venues, and of course nobody likes paying extra money, but it is very much in their interests that the money from the levy is used to create a safe environment. I should like the venues to have a greater opportunity to help to shape how the money is spent. My understanding is that local authorities will receive 30% of it and 70% will go to the police. The venues, which pay that money, should help to shape that decision. Ultimately, the final decision should be for the police or the local authority, because they are the ones who are accountable, but the venue owners see the situation at first hand.
In the areas where I worked, I saw that when people were enjoying themselves, they were generally well behaved, but when they wanted to go home, they found themselves unable to do so. I would therefore have suggested that the money from the levy be spent on a taxi rank co-ordinator in my area, so that people could get home swiftly and efficiently. In other areas, the venues might suggest that there should be better lighting, because generally, where there is good visible access there is a lot less trouble than in areas with only a handful of people around, which are not so well policed. My plea is that the Government ensure that there is transparency, and that venues that contribute to the late-night levy have a say.
I come at the matter from a different viewpoint from my hon. Friend’s, because I used to be the chairman of the licensing authority in the city of Hull. Transparency is important on the late-night levy, and on fees in general, but do we not have to ensure that we get the split right, too? When I was the licensing chairman, many of the solutions to problems in the late-night economy came from the council rather than from the police. We should therefore keep the percentage split under review at all times.
That is a valid point, and my hon. Friend speaks with first-hand experience and authority. The layout of the night-time economy is different in every town, which means that each town creates unique challenges that either the local authority or the local police must challenge. That is why I keep coming back to the need to ensure that venues feed into the system. The people who run them will know where the minority of people are generating problems.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he think it is important that nothing in the proposals detracts from existing models of good practice in arrangements involving the police, the local authority and the business community, such as the one in Broad street in Birmingham?
I absolutely agree, and I am familiar with Broad street—I have seen how it has been transformed into a relatively safe place over the years. There will always be a minority who cause problems, but if local late-night economy establishments, the local authority and the police work together proactively, they can transform an area. Although it is a burden to pay additional fees through the late-night levy, the venues will be paid back, because if more customers can see that the levy has created a safe environment, they will have the confidence to go to the venues and spend money.
My hon. Friend said that every town is different, and I am interested in his experience of running a late-night venue. The Bill would apply the provision to a whole council area, and not just to one town in it. As a nightclub owner, would he have been happy to pay for problems in a different town, and for none of his money to be spent in his town?
My understanding is that that is why picking areas has been delegated to local authorities. I would extend it so that the measure is venue-specific. There are some proactive, good venues and there should be an incentive to encourage that; the opposite should apply to establishments that are perhaps less proactive and more responsible for the minority of problems.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend’s last point. The measure would be very effective in creating a safe environment in some areas of Portsmouth such as Guildhall walk, but in the north of the city, which I represent, many venues have no problems at all, and yet they would be severely penalised by such fees.
To sum up on that point, my plea is for common sense to be applied to each local area. I would go one step further. The Best Bar None and various Pubwatch schemes are so essential that they ought to be compulsory. It should be part of the licensing arrangement that somebody who is responsible for a venue attends those meetings. Clearly, the best examples are when local authorities, the local police and local venues work together. It is unacceptable if a late-night economy venue does not proactively participate in such schemes, so I would include such participation as a condition of the licence.
This has been a useful debate, and I welcome the contributions from the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert)—I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments and thank him for his support and participation in Committee—and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson).
Obviously, new clause 1 relates to the general setting of licensing fees and the administration of the Licensing Act 2003 locally, rather than to the late-night levy. I recognise the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon has just raised, and perhaps we will debate the late-night levy in further detail when we debate another group of amendments in this part of our consideration of the Bill.
The late-night levy is a discretionary arrangement, so local authorities can decide whether one is appropriate in their area. The Government have indicated that there could be exemptions for establishments that make arrangements under schemes such as Best Bar None. Further detail will come forward in regulations and guidance, as I indicated in Committee, which I hope my hon. Friend accepts.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned in an intervention the business improvement district in Broad street, Birmingham, which I have had the pleasure to visit. I saw how that partnership-type approach of drawing together the relevant licensed premises and other businesses to provide funds to look after and manage the area. A sad and tragic occurrence led to the establishment of that business improvement district, but it is a good example of how partnership working involving the police, the local authority, licensed premises and other businesses can work.
The Government do not seek to prescribe one specific model of partnership or how partnerships operate, or to say how a local authority should approach its management of licensing-related issues. Those things can be done in various ways, including through a business improvement district, a late-night levy, an early morning restriction order or voluntary arrangements such as community alcohol projects. I went to see the St Neots project when that started, and it is now being rolled forward. We support many such consensual voluntary arrangements whereby various parts of business work with local councils to come up with innovative, practical solutions to address problems on the ground.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and others highlighted a number of specific points in relation to new clause 1. As she said, the previous Government tasked the independent fees review panel with consideration of the deficit between the costs and income of licensing authorities. In 2006, it estimated that a 7% increase in fee income was necessary for full cost recovery. Obviously, important points were made in the course of that review and, as I indicated, it was first and foremost in our considerations in introducing the new clause. The Government did not suddenly alight on the new clause at the last moment. Indeed, the original consultation document, which we published last summer, clearly refers to fees. In addition, full cost recovery was very much part and parcel of the consultation, to which we are therefore responding.
We will issue statutory guidance under section 182 of the 2003 Act on the application of good regulation, including risk assessment and targeted inspection, to which licensing authorities must have regard. That will be important as a further framework to the structure of the new arrangements.
Hon. Members mentioned burdens on business. We are obviously cognisant of statements in the recent Budget and the intention to introduce a moratorium to exempt micro and start-up businesses from new domestic regulation. There will be exemptions from the moratorium, and we will obviously need to consider the new licensing legislation, including locally set fees, within that framework. However, I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North that there is a clear need to address the gap highlighted in the Elton report. It does not seem right for local authorities effectively to subsidise the processing and activities of the 2003 Act when dealing with licensing arrangements, and I shall say more about that.
Will the Minister therefore confirm that the one-in, one-out principle will not apply in relation to the Bill, which certainly places a range of regulatory burdens on business?
The hon. Lady actually made that point in Committee. The Government take one-in, one-out seriously. Regulatory burden was considered closely and carefully during the approvals that led up to the Bill, as part of our broader consideration of the wider arrangements concerning burdens on business. We want to strip away things that are not needed, bureaucratic and unnecessary, but we will come to that in due course when we consider the next group of amendments, which relate to alcohol disorder zones, which clearly have not worked, because no one has taken them up. We obviously consider the new clause to be an important step towards getting the right balance.
The hon. Lady mentioned periodically reviewing the maximum fee level. That is certainly something that we will do. As I said in my opening comments, we also intend to consult properly on the details of the proposals, so that we can take on board the different opinions. There will, therefore, be an opportunity for a number of these matters to be considered further. The hon. Lady asked about the time scale for that. We anticipate that the necessary regulations will be laid in October 2012 to allow that detailed consultation to take place. That is the time scale we are working to in the laying of the relevant regulations. She also asked about guidance. There will be guidance on how locally set fees will operate and on how to set the fees. It is important that there is transparency on how this is undertaken—in many ways, that reflects the comment from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon—and clarity on how the fees will be set locally.
A question was asked about what the assessment for setting fees locally will include and what full cost recovery will encapsulate. The new clause makes it clear that the costs that a licensing authority may recover in its fees include those of other responsible authorities and other relevant parts of the licensing authority. That means that marginal costs that relate to duties arising from the Licensing Act can be included. However, policing costs would not be included. In other words, we are looking at the administration of the Act by the relevant local authority. That is how the new clause has been framed. Obviously, however, further consideration of the details can take place as part of the consultation as we move towards introducing the regulations that will sit behind this provision. That also applies to the necessary guidance that will help to inform the framing of the arrangements. Obviously, fees must not represent a blank cheque for local authorities, and fee payers need to be reassured of that. As I have said, a maximum level for each fee will be set in regulations. We will consult formally on the level before we introduce it, and will take evidence from a variety of authorities and fee payers to ascertain the satisfactory maximum sum for each fee.
I hope that I have addressed hon. Members’ comments made during the debate. I also hope that all hon. Members will recognise that this is a sensible proposal, that we have listened to representations made from different quarters and that this provision will deal with the shortfall for local authorities. We are introducing the measure in a considered way, recognising the pressures on local authorities and businesses, and we believe that it is appropriate. We consulted on the new clause last August, and I hope that hon. Members will be minded to support it.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 2
Alcohol disorder zones: repeal
‘Sections 15 to 20 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 (alcohol disorder zones) are repealed.’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this 56.
New clause 2 will repeal the previous Administration’s alcohol disorder zones. This optional power for local authorities was so well considered and useful that it has been completely unused by local licensing authorities to date. Alcohol disorder zones were heavy on bureaucracy and potentially expensive to introduce and administer. I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) is in his place to hear me say this, because he was involved in the consideration of these zones. I recognise some of the challenges that he probably faced at the time in trying to introduce the policy, but we believe that it is time to call time on alcohol disorder zones. The Government do not believe that they are the right approach to tackling alcohol-related nuisance, annoyance or crime and disorder, and as such we seek their repeal.
Alcohol disorder zones were designed to tackle areas with a specific problem with alcohol-related nuisance, annoyance or disorder. To apply a zone, a licensing authority was required first to gather evidence that a specific area was responsible for causing alcohol-related nuisance, annoyance or disorder. Adoption of a zone further required that all premises subscribed to an action plan. If there was evidence that the action plan had failed, local authorities could impose a charge on local businesses to pay for additional enforcement, but had to provide a calculation of the cost of enforcement in order to levy the charge. That was a prohibitive bureaucratic process.
Does the Minister agree that one of the unattractive features of the disorder zone plan was that it required areas to be described, or to describe themselves, as places of disorder? In itself, that was a most unattractive prospect.
It would be fair to say that it probably was not the biggest selling point of the policy to have that tag attached to a local area. It was probably, therefore, one of the disincentives. However, the problem had more to do with the levels of bureaucracy, including the impact of making some of the extremely challenging calculations necessary. I do not think that any local authority has felt brave enough to come forward. The Government are committed, therefore, to reducing the burden. The tools and powers available to local authorities must be simple to adopt and proportionate to the problem. Early morning restriction orders, for example, will, by stopping the sale of alcohol, be a simple way for local authorities to tackle specific problems at specific times and on specific days. That is something that we recognise and have taken forward in the Bill. We have sought to apply a more flexible approach through early morning restriction orders.
The late-night levy will be an optional power for local authorities to raise a contribution to the large policing costs incurred in the late-night economy, as well as supporting costs of local authorities in managing the late-night economy. The levy has been specifically designed to be simple for licensing authorities to adopt. We considered the repeal of alcohol disorder zones in our public consultation last year. The responses overwhelmingly supported repeal. Local authorities and the police spoke of the evidential burden, while businesses identified the policy as ineffective. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that alcohol disorder zones should no longer be on the statute book. I therefore ask that the new clause be incorporated in the Bill so that we can finally put this failed policy to rest.
Clearly, the new clause is a housekeeping matter for the Government in tidying up licensing legislation. I listened carefully to the Minister’s comments on the need for simplicity and a proportionate response to alcohol problems late at night. However, I do not think that the blanket approach being adopted under the late-night levy is proportionate. I would caution the Minister. Let us consider a large area of the country such as the East Riding of Yorkshire. If the local authority was minded to apply a late-night levy to the whole of the East Riding, small country pubs with no problems would have to pay the levy as well as places in more built-up areas, such as Bridlington, that do have problems late at night. The Government’s approach through the late-night levy might almost be described as the son of the alcohol disorder zones.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the club that people end up in will sometimes not be where they start consuming alcohol? In fact, they might not even have a drink there, but that can be where the problem occurs.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Indeed, when it comes to licensing, one disappointing aspect of the Bill is the failure to deal with pre-loading and the low cost of alcohol in supermarkets. This Bill would have been an opportunity for the Government to legislate to deal with those issues, and there is concern that they seem to have missed it.
I am concerned that businesses that already contribute to voluntary arrangements—they include Pubwatch and Best Bar None, to which hon. Members have referred—may feel penalised if they are then asked to make contributions to the late-night levy as well. There is also concern that because the provision will affect only licensed premises that sell alcohol, it will not deal with, say, problems with late-night takeaways. If the Minister is minded to do so, it would be worth considering whether the late-night licence should include all parts of the late-night economy. That would seem to be the fairest way of dealing with the issue.
I am delighted to support new clause 2. It would remove sections 15 to 20 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which were totally ineffective and did not work. I suggest that those provisions were also slightly tokenistic. Indeed, the previous Government fell into the trap of doing a lot of things that were token demonstrations. It is an easy trap to fall into, and I do not think that doing things for tokenistic reasons was unique to the last Government. I hope that this Government will learn the lesson of not doing things because they look good, but will continue to make great efforts to ensure that whoever forms the next Government will not have the same things to say about us.
One of the lessons learned about why those provisions were ineffective is set out in clause 125(4), which deals with the late-night levy requirement. That lesson, which has just been discussed, is how we draw the boundaries of an area. We cannot take the model of the past, which involved drawing boundaries very roughly. Therefore, the Minister decided that an area must be an entire council area, as has been said, although that causes problems in Cornwall, which is a large council area. Perhaps we should learn a slightly different lesson, which is that although we should not have complete flexibility of boundaries, we could have some flexibility. Perhaps the rule should be that we can combine entire ward areas, which would avoid the problems of the provisions that we are getting rid of, but make their replacement work a little better.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that wherever we draw the line, there will be one premises one side of it and another premises on the other, which could literally be next door to one another? Wherever we draw the line, there will still be a problem.
That is obviously the case, but unless the hon. Gentleman has a fantastic suggestion for solving that problem—a problem that applies to waste collection and everything else, and in every other country—I do not see how we can address it. The same problem would apply with council boundaries, which are not always in the perfect location for all purposes.
My hon. Friend mentions large council boundaries. Portsmouth, which I think is the most densely populated city in Europe apart from London, has a small council boundary, yet we have the same problem. There are areas with no problems where, if a fee was applied, it would be problematic for businesses to keep running.
I agree, and I think that my hon. Friend and I share the same objective. We do not want to return to the alcohol disorder zone approach, which clearly did not work and involved having to draw a complex wiggly line that would have exacerbated the problems. That is why I am suggesting ward-sized boundaries, which, while never being perfect, would take us a lot further and allow the various areas of Portsmouth to be separated—I do not know the city as well as she does, and I am sure that she could say which wards were more of an issue than others.
If we accept that alcohol disorder zones were not a success—perhaps it is right to repeal them at this stage—is it not also fair to say that what we are hearing today are legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences of the new approach? Given the hon. Gentleman’s desire not to have ineffective legislation, does he feel that it would be in the Government’s interests for the Minister to promise an early review of the proposal?
It is hard to argue that alcohol disorder zones were effective, given that nobody used them, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not trying to make that case. I am not calling for an early review, because we have to give things a certain amount of time. I would not necessarily have said, for example, that getting rid of alcohol disorder zones at the beginning of 2007 would have been the right thing to do either. It takes time to realise that something simply has not worked. I am not calling for an early review, but I am sure that the Minister will comment on my suggestion of using ward boundaries. We did not discuss it in detail in Committee, either here or in the other place, but it might provide a way of making the scheme a bit easier for councils to use, because we want to ensure that what the Minister intends is, in fact, what we see in the end.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, but it is about an issue in which I am quite interested, given my former role as chairman of the licensing authority in Hull, one of the two councils in East Yorkshire. My coalition colleague, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), stole some of my thunder, proving that on this issue we are a happy coalition.
I chaired the licensing authority in Hull for a number of years, at the time when powers were transferred to us from the justices, so I was involved in writing the city’s licensing policy. It was clear from the beginning that the powers that we had been given were insufficient. In some ways, I understood why the Government had come up with a solution, given the national outcry at the time and the problems that we had all read about. However, when I sat down with our council officers and said, “Alcohol disorder zones—what’s your advice?”, they said, “We’re not going to go anywhere near them, and we doubt anyone else will.” It would have taken some time for alcohol disorder zones to become effective, but it was clear from the beginning that they were incredibly bureaucratic and would not be introduced in any part of England. Indeed, we have had similar problems with cumulative impact zones, which the local authority in Hull has twice rejected, and on very much the same grounds—the unfairness that could be meted out to premises with no problems at all, but which could none the less be drawn into such zones.
I take the point made by the shadow Minister—my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson)—about the late-night levy. In many ways, I understand the Government’s intentions. Indeed, when I was a licensing chairman, all we wanted was a little more power—as all councillors and politicians always do—to do something about the premises with which we knew we had repeated problems. At the time, we could not always rely on the police to make review applications, and we could do little with the review applications that we received from residents, because the weight of evidence that they put was insufficient, so we do need something.
I have concerns, however, particularly—as the shadow Minister said—in areas such as the East Riding of Yorkshire, or in the other part of my constituency, in north Lincolnshire. A late-night levy could draw in the Percy Arms—the pub four doors from my house, in a small, quiet, East Riding village—at the same time as nightclubs in Bridlington and Withernsea, which seems a little unfair.
Indeed, that would be unfair in a city as well. In Hull, as well as in Scunthorpe and other towns in our area, the problems are generally in the town or city centre, yet pubs in the suburbs or outside the city could also be drawn into the levy. I therefore support the suggestion made by Members in all parts of the House, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, that we should think carefully about how to apply the levy. I understand the Government’s intention, and I agree with the early-hours orders, which could be particularly effective. However, we need to ensure flexibility in the system. In my time as a licensing chairman, we wanted a bit more power to do something against certain premises. However, as with all legislation, we need to ensure that we do not draw in premises that are innocent of any trouble. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I would urge the Government to give an assurance that the provisions will be reviewed at some time in the future.
Obviously I have already covered some of this issue with my earlier comments on the late-night levy, but the buzz word that is coming across is greater flexibility. A number of Members have highlighted possible solutions to the problems of setting boundaries, but I think that the only way to set a boundary is to be venue-specific. Venues that conduct themselves in the right manner need an incentive. It has been suggested that venues in the East Riding with no history of problems, which do everything by the rule book and are nowhere near the problem areas, could be caught by the provisions. If we adopted more specific boundaries, we might have a ward boundary between two different establishments, with the well-behaved one on the wrong side of the boundary.
The measure should be venue-specific and should be reviewed on a 12-month basis. A venue might be perfectly well behaved, but have a change of manager or a change in its cycle. In my experience, a new venue has novelty value and people queue to enter it, so it can afford to be picky and choosy, but when it gets towards the end of its natural life before being refurbished or simply closed it might cut corners to try to keep people coming in. This can result in a prevalence of under-age drinking, and its associated problems, so the measure should be venue-specific and reviewed regularly. The venues should also help to shape the way in which the late-night levy is paid.
I welcome local authorities having greater powers to deal with problem venues because we have a duty to protect the vast majority of people who go out on a Friday and Saturday night to enjoy themselves. If a venue is causing problems and encouraging a small minority to ruin things for the vast majority, the local authority should have the power to deal with that. Again, such measures should be venue-specific, and time-specific in relation to the venue. Generally, when people are out enjoying themselves, they are well behaved, but if they are trying to get home having not had a very good night problems can arise. People might try to jump the queue for a taxi, for example, which is why I have mentioned the need for a taxi co-ordinator. If all the venues in an area close at the same time, everyone will be spilling on to the streets at once. Closing times should therefore be staggered throughout the night. We should allow the responsible venues that have all the checks in place to stay open until 3 o’clock in the morning, if that is what the area wants, and close a problem venue at a different time to allow the limited police resources to deal with any associated problems. My plea is therefore for greater flexibility and for measures to be venue-specific and reviewed regularly.
It has been interesting to listen to the practical experiences of the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). Given his practical business experience, what does the hon. Member for North Swindon think about the possibility of having a late-night levy and an early morning restriction order operating at the same time?
There would be obvious challenges. For example, if a local authority decided to charge any venue open after midnight a late-night levy but made it close at 12.15, that would not give it an opportunity to generate enough additional income to pay for the late-night levy. My proposal would be to bring the local authority, the police and the late-night venues together to discuss the matter. No venue will openly say that it wants to pay a late-night levy, because it adds an extra cost to its bottom line, but if that money were seen to be spent on improving the safety and enjoyment of the vast majority of people, allowing them to get home safely and quickly after a night out, they would be more likely to go out again and spend money.
I am trying to strike a balance between being proactively supportive of people going out and enjoying themselves and considering those who have to deal with the minority who cause problems. To ensure that this works, I would make it compulsory for those responsible for running venues—the managers, the keyholders, the licence holders—to sit round the table with the local authority, the licensing people and the police. This practice can encompass schemes such as Best Bar None and Pubwatch, and approaches that bar troublemakers from all the venues in an area if they cause trouble in just one. In that way, the vast majority who go out to enjoy themselves on Friday and Saturday nights will have their experience enhanced, and the industry will benefit because its perception and reputation will be greatly improved.
I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson); his experience has been of benefit to all of us. This is not a party political issue. We all want to see successful pubs and licensed premises where people can enjoy themselves and the businesses can make money and provide the jobs that are very much needed in some places. Perhaps I did not make myself clear to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert): I am happy to accept that alcohol disorder zones were not a success. I think that they were genuinely conceived as an attempt to deal with a problem that we all recognised, but they were not a success. I am not in any sense troubled to see the Government scrapping them and trying a different approach. I honestly hope that that approach will work, and I wish it well.
There are some obvious concerns, however, and several of them have been mentioned today. Problems could arise when a rural area is adjacent to an intensively developed town, for example. The application of the rules in such a situation could be problematic. The west midlands has several local authorities in close proximity, and there is a risk that the application of certain levy arrangements in, say, Solihull could have a knock-on effect in neighbouring Birmingham. It is reasonable to say that we are concerned about how this will work in practice.
I urge the Minister to review the provisions, not because I want to be able to come back here in 12 or 18 months to have a bit of fun at his expense. On many occasions, I would quite enjoy that, but in this context it probably would not be terribly useful. As I have said, this problem does not involve any party politics. We are all grappling with the same issue, and want to get to the same end point. I therefore urge the Minister to have a review, perhaps even a rolling review, so that we can see what problems are developing, what solutions are being tried, and whether there is a way of developing best practice. Instead of reaching a point at which we have to say, “Oh well, that didn’t work either. We’ll repeal it and start all over again,” I would much rather see the approach being modified as we go along. It might be in the Minister’s interest to agree to report regularly to us on the lessons that have been learned from the application of the measure, so that we can call on the experience of people such as the hon. Member for North Swindon, who could suggest adjustments that might make a difference.
I wish the measure well, and I hope that it will work, but I urge the Minister to think about introducing a regular review process that will allow us to learn lessons and ensure that we tackle the problem.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for his contribution. He talked about not wanting to have fun at my expense, but I genuinely take his point on board.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was in the Chamber only fleetingly. Perhaps he did not want to be present at the denouement. I remember him, when he was a Minister, grappling to try to make the alcohol disorder zone policy work. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and I used to pick holes in it, saying that parts of it would not work and that it was too complicated. I asked how areas would be defined and which businesses would be part of the scheme. I also asked how the costs and charges would be calculated, and what steps would have to be taken to set the scheme up. I could almost see the beads of sweat forming on the hon. Gentleman’s brow, because those were all fair questions that many people were asking. I do not claim any great credit in that sense, because many outside agencies, including the Local Government Association, shared the view that it was a nice idea but that it really would not work. It is now right and proper to accept that, to move on and to learn the lessons from that time.
I respect the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who I know probably wants to gloss over the alcohol disorder zone episode, as does everybody nowadays, and move on to a new chapter. The ADZ episode taught us that in seeking to apply a charge in that way, defining the area can seem quite straightforward initially but prove devilishly difficult. That was one of the issues behind the ADZ problem.
We have sought to take a different approach by looking at the issue on a time basis rather than at a specific area and by dealing with the problems of managing the late-night economy. Research showed that there were pressures on the police and increases in crime in the early hours of the morning, suggesting the importance of the time at which this was happening. That is why clause 126 makes it clear that the late-night levy must
“begin at or after midnight, and… end at or before 6 am.”
I hear the points made about rural areas, for example, where there might not be a problem. I note the question about whether, if the levy were applied more generally across the whole local council area, it would capture the well-run community pubs in the locality. If this were set to start only at midnight, I would suggest that those well-run community pubs are most likely to have shut by that time—before the levy comes into operation. If this is a problem, there is flexibility in the setting of the time at which the levy starts; it could begin from 1 am, for example. That flexibility is built into the measure.
It would help us and the industry if we understood how we are going to deal with the problem of events accidentally going beyond midnight or 1 am. Although there might not be any problems, a licence might be sought to cover a wedding or other event. At times such as new year’s eve places are open for a long time, which might technically tip them into the levy, although that is not the Government’s intention.
I think I made it clear in Committee that in those circumstances we would allow people to change their licence conditions to avoid the levy. Temporary event notices for specific issues would be considered under the TENs regime.
Will the Minister confirm that if a pub or venue operates just once in a year for which the late-night licence after midnight or 1 am applies, it will be subject to a late-night levy? Will the Government consider allowing, say, five or 10 opportunities for a pub to open during the year before the late-night levy kicks in?
Again, I think I said in Committee that we would want to look at such issues in the detail of the regulations. There are some specific points, as I said in Committee, that it would be appropriate to examine further. As part of that, we would want to give flexibility to encapsulate the schemes we have debated this afternoon—the Best Bar None and other voluntary schemes—so that some credit could be applied. I stress that the provisions are intended to be flexible, but if it became clear that the levy was not effective, at that stage—once implementation has taken place and an appropriate period had elapsed—it would be appropriate, as with any measure, to review it. We believe, however, that the provisions already have the required flexibility and are workable, and that they will not have the same bureaucratic problems as alcohol disorder zones. We believe that they are an important means of aiding the management and control of the late-night economy, many areas of which have been badly affected by the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003, without necessarily taking account of the consequences that have occurred.
I welcome the suggestion that there is greater flexibility in the provision, but setting the levy according to time is still likely to capture venues that conduct themselves appropriately but just happen to be operating beyond a certain time. There is an analogy with football policing. A big local football club will contribute to policing costs because it attracts all the supporters, but no one would dream of charging the part-time or amateur football clubs that play on the local recreation grounds. It should be venue-specific and it should take into account the need to be proactive in working with the local authority and the police authority.
On the venue-specific point, if there are problems, a review of licensed premises can be conducted. That is also why we included provisions to strengthen the enforcement of the laws against under-age sales.
Can problems with pre-loading, post-loading and so forth be pinned down to one specific area or not? We think that setting the levy on a time basis is fair and equitable, involving the provision of funding for local authorities to look at taxi marshals and manage the late-night economy in its broadest sense. By narrowing it down, the provision might start to lose some of the intent behind it, which is to help the police and local authorities to manage the late-night economy—if that is what they choose to do. I remind hon. Members that this is a discretionary power for local authorities to determine.
The Minister has made it clear again that this is a discretionary power that local authorities can exercise, but he has also made it clear that there were no alcohol disorder zones, so I wonder how many local authorities he expects to apply the late-night levy. That knowledge will help us to gauge its success in the future.
Strangely enough, this Government do not believe in central targets. The hon. Lady tempts me down that path, but I have to say that I have no specific target. I refer her to the regulatory impact assessment, which she will have read assiduously, as it sets out the level of fees forecast. The regulatory impact assessment sought to examine possible options and estimate what might be recovered by the late-night levy. Rather than count up the number of local authorities, however, I point her to that assessment. We hope it will be successful.
The Minister is generous with his time and in being willing to take some of our points into account. I welcome the suggestion that we might be able to find a way, by means of regulation, of excluding village pubs such as the ones in my area. The problem with the alcohol disorder zones was not necessarily the setting of the boundaries, but the paperwork and bureaucracy that went with them. I commend to the Minister one area of law that seems to have worked very well—the designated alcohol zones. These are no-drinking zones, which have a set boundary and were quite easy to set up in comparison with ADZs. Having boundaries or setting boundaries around problem areas is not necessarily that complicated if we ensure that the process is simplified.
There might be a distinction to be drawn between seeking to calculate costs and charges as with the ADZs, and local byelaws drawn up by some local authorities. As I have already said, the early morning alcohol restriction orders are relevant, along with cumulative impact zones. They show that there are ways of seeking to control the behaviour of individuals within a particular area. Calculating costs and levying charges and fees for licences appropriately has to be done in a broader way to make it effective so that we do not get drawn down into the bureaucratic mechanism that we are seeking to put to bed in respect of the alcohol disorder zone.
The Minister has been urged to make the Bill location-specific, but would that not confer a stigma on certain locations? Would it not also create excessive bureaucracy, as local authorities would have to do far more work? Moreover, would it not depart from the principle that the Bill seeks to implement, namely the establishment of a balance that will assist the police and allay public concern about such problems as disorder?
My hon. Friend makes some powerful points, which bring us neatly back to the subject of alcohol disorder zones. I do not think that they met the tests that my hon. Friend has just identified. For that reason, we think it right to end a policy that sadly became an alcohol disarray zone, given the challenges that stood in the way of its being brought to fruition. We believe that there is merit in providing local authorities and the police with funds enabling them to manage the late-night economy; we believe that the right way in which to do that is through the late-night levy; and we believe that it is time to end the ADZ episode, which has clearly been a failure.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 2 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 3
General duties of licensing authorities
‘(1) The Licensing Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 4 (General duties of licensing authorities) insert—
(a) protecting and improving public health.”.’.—(Diana Johnson.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Licensing Act 2003 sets out the four licensing objectives that must currently be taken into account when a local authority carries out its licensing functions: the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance, and the protection of children from harm. The new clause would introduce a fifth objective: to protect and improve public health. We tabled it to deal with three key issues. First, there is the fact that public health is far more prominent and talked about than ever before. Secondly, there is the role of primary care trusts and, in future, local authorities, which is relevant to clause 104. Thirdly, there is the current position in Scotland.
Let me explain first why we think the issue of public health is so important. As an Opposition spokesman, the Secretary of State for Health made clear his strong commitment to it. So committed was he that he planned to rename the Department of Health “the Department of Public Health” if the Conservatives came to power. Obviously that has not happened, but the Secretary of State is very busy with his Health and Social Care Bill, and we know that he is trying to rename the NHS “the HS”—to get rid of the “national”.
The widespread view is that there is a proper role for Government in the promotion of good public health. We know from the provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill that one of the few budgets that will be ring-fenced in future is the public health money that will pass from the PCTs to local authorities in 2013. However, the Government have experienced big problems in their approach to public health. This month we have seen the fall-out from their stance on self-regulation by the drinks industry through the responsibility deal. A number of health groups have walked away from the discussions and the agreement, including the British Heart Foundation.
Don Shenker, the chief executive of Alcohol Concern, made clear his view that the Government’s approach to public health will not work. He said that the responsibility deal was
“the worst possible deal for everyone who wants to see alcohol harm reduced”,
and that it had no sanctions to impose if the industry failed to fulfil its pledges. He described those pledges as “half-hearted”,
and that the
“government has clearly shown that when it comes to public health its first priority is to side with big business and protect private profit.”
Let us consider what has already been said about this issue, and the action that the Government have taken so far. Yesterday the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) presented a ten-minute rule Bill to restrict the marketing of alcohol to children and young people. She made a telling point in expressing concern about the fact that the Government were putting the fox in charge of the chickens. They have, for instance, set their face against the idea of making personal, social and health education compulsory. That would have provided an excellent opportunity for young people to be taught about the effects of alcohol and the long-term health consequences of drinking too much.
In January, the Minister set out the coalition Government’s plans in relation to minimum pricing. He said that they wanted alcohol to be sold at the level of duty plus VAT. Many people, including representatives of many health organisations, have pointed out that that will have little effect on the price of alcohol in supermarkets, many of which will continue to sell alcohol that is cheaper than bottled water. It also contradicts the view of Liam Donaldson, the former chief medical officer, that there should be a minimum price of 50p per unit.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady can help me, given that I am a new Member, by reminding me what the minimum price was under the last Government.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, because he pays close attention to these issues, there has been a continuing debate for some time about the need to reach a conclusion that everyone considers appropriate. The problem with the announcement from the coalition Government is that it is causing most people to think that it will have no effect at all.
I know that the hon. Gentleman sets great store by academic research and evidence. According to research carried out by Sheffield university, pricing measures will only be significantly effective from around the 40p per unit mark. It is feared that the coalition Government’s preferred level will be not 40p but much lower, and that they have missed the opportunity to make significant strides in dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse.
As I pointed out during a previous debate, the Bill contains no provisions dealing with minimum pricing, and I think most people would consider that a great shame. We were looking forward to legislation shortly after the announcement in January. The Government are clearly in some disarray when it comes to public health and alcohol, but the new clause offers them a real opportunity to reassert their commitment to improving public health and dealing with some of the public health problems associated with alcohol. We believe that we are helping them to achieve what I am sure all Members agree is the very proper aim of ensuring that alcohol-related problems are dealt with properly by the House. Therefore, if the Government were to add in health and this further objective in respect of licensing, it would show that they are serious about the problem of public health, and it would also deal with the problems they have faced since taking office last May.
My next point is about primary care trusts. The Minister will recall that we had a debate in Committee about primary care trusts becoming responsible authorities under clause 104. In that debate, I raised a number of issues about how the primary care trust, which is a health body, would effectively be able to make representations to the licensing committee on the four objectives of licensing, none of which currently includes the issue of health, and there was an exchange of views between the Minister and me about how this would work. It would clearly make sense for health to be one of the objectives, as the PCT would therefore be able to deal specifically with the health implications for the community concerned. I believe this fifth condition would make sense within the terms of the Bill and clause 104.
I would also like the Minister to comment on another issue. Under the Health and Social Care Bill provisions, the primary care trust will be removed and the public health function will be taken up by the local authority. The local authority would therefore be exercising its responsibilities as a licensing authority and would also have a public health promotion and high-level strategic role. If health is not one of the conditions of licensing, might not local authorities be facing both ways at the same time? That is an important issue.
Under the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, the Scottish Government have introduced a fifth condition into their licensing objectives: to protect and improve public health. In Scotland, there has been genuine concern for some time about the levels of alcohol consumption and the effect on the health of the nation. The Nicholson Committee deliberated at length on whether health should be included as one of the conditions under the Act. When that idea went out to public consultation, there was widespread support for it, and I think that that would also be the case in the rest of the UK if the Government were to put it forward.
In Scotland, there has been no final evaluation of the impact of adding health as one of the conditions, and it is still quite early days. However, West Dunbartonshire council has used the local alcohol and drug partnership information and guidance as a tool for the licensing boards to address health objectives, and that has proved a very positive step. That council is certainly considered to be at the forefront of local authorities in Scotland in dealing with this issue in a sensible way. This measure is breaking new ground however, and there is great concern about how licensing boards implement it and the information they take into account. Whenever we break new ground, there will always be lawyers in the background examining whether there is an opportunity to appeal, and, unfortunately, that has happened a great deal in Scotland, but that is no excuse for not taking the step and addressing the issue of health.
Under the Scottish model, the main way the measure is being assessed is by looking at the over-provision of pubs and other licensed premises within an area to give some indication as to the impact on the health of the community. The statistics that are available through the alcohol and drug partnership should also be considered, as that has been effective.
The Government have an opportunity to lead the way in introducing this provision, and to join Scotland at the forefront of taking public health and alcohol concerns seriously and shaping the debate in the rest of the world. Many countries are already looking at what happens in Scotland, and thinking that they may want to join in. It would be a great pity if England and Wales did not consider the matter properly and fully, and did not take some positive steps to deal with this issue, which many of our constituents feel has been ignored for too long.
That was an interesting contribution from the hon. Lady. She said that she felt public health had been ignored for a long time, but she made a slight mistake by highlighting that. That is why I am delighted that my colleagues in the Department of Health are taking this matter seriously in their approach to Public Health England, which is giving proper attention to public health. It is a shame that the hon. Lady made those comments because we have had a reasonable debate and she unfortunately decided to make more partisan attacks during that contribution. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of how we reached this point on the accident and emergency issues and of all the pressures that are brought to bear on our health service and on the police. The vibrant café culture had been promised and written up as part of the reforms introduced by the Licensing Act 2003, but it failed to materialise. That is why we are taking steps in this Bill to address licensing issues.
I agree with the hon. Lady that public health issues are involved here and that there is merit in making health a material consideration in the 2003 Act. The Government stated that in their response to the “Rebalancing the Licensing Act” consultation, which contained a specific consultation point on the matter, and we committed to considering the best way to take this issue forward. However, my view is that the issue requires further consideration, alongside wider Government work, to address the harm alcohol causes to health.
It is important to highlight the fact that the Bill has sought to bring certain changes into effect, such as enabling primary care trusts, as health bodies, to make representations. Health bodies have a clear interest in the existing 2003 Act objectives of “public safety” and “crime reduction”, as illustrated in: alcohol-related accident and emergency attendances; ambulance journeys following road traffic accidents and other accidents; glassing and other injuries; alcohol poisoning cases and so on. That directly relates to how those health bodies are able to make representations under the Bill. Drunken accidents and injuries comprise a high proportion of accident and emergency attendances—the estimate is up to 70% on Saturday nights. When added to ambulance costs, they cost the NHS about £1.1 billion a year, so this is a legitimate focus for licensing.
Members on both sides of the House want to ensure that we get the best possible policy on alcohol and public health—we all have an interest in doing that—but can the Minister explain to me what he expects the PCT to provide on an individual licence application? A lot of bureaucracy will be involved if the individual licence application has to involve accident and emergency statistics. Are they what he expects the PCT to provide?
In some areas, NHS organisations already share anonymised A and E data with the police. Such intelligence can highlight where violent incidents occur and any hot-spot premises, thus supporting police representations at licensing hearings and wider law enforcement. Making local health bodies responsible authorities will encourage the effective collection and sharing of anonymised A and E data and other robust and targeted evidence for licensing authorities to consider.
The hon. Lady specifically asked how the role of local authorities will be managed in the context of Public Health England. She will be well aware that licensing authorities become responsible authorities under the Bill and are therefore able, in essence, to make their own representations. Obviously, different functions are carried out by different parts of the local authority, as happens in planning. The licensing committee is able to consider applications and relevant legislative issues, so there is a broad read-across in how a local authority is able not only to make representations but to determine things. A local licensing panel will have an almost quasi-judicial role in that situation, as does a planning authority.
I want to return to some of the hon. Lady’s other points.
Before I do so, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Whether or not the Minister accepts the new clause, does he accept the central point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson)? As the Bill stands, a local authority could license a supermarket to sell cheap alcohol, creating a problem. If that local authority then imposed a levy that applied to other premises in the near vicinity but not to the supermarket, the health sector would not necessarily benefit from any of the levy, but it might suffer some of the worst cost effects of the problem. Does he accept that he must do something about the central health issue?
I will come to that. If the late-night levy is effective in managing the night-time economy and in supporting the police, it will have an impact. For example, it might affect the accident and emergency attendances that might otherwise arise in an area. Indirect benefits could accrue from the operation of the levy in that way. Different points need to be discussed, but I will come on to the issue of price, which is a fair point and was raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).
Protecting public health is a complex issue, and that was reflected in the mixed nature of the responses the Government received when, in our “Rebalancing the Licensing Act” consultation, we asked about adding the prevention of health harm as a fifth licensing objective. Although those who supported the proposal acknowledged the benefits of improving public health, reducing the burden on the NHS and increasing responsibility among licensees, those who opposed it were concerned that it would be onerous and unworkable.
Adding protecting and improving public health as a licensing objective, as the new clause proposes, would mark a fundamental change to the Licensing Act. The four existing licensing objectives underpin the Act and, as the hon. Lady highlighted, the licensing authority is required to carry out its functions with a view to promoting these objectives. We believe that before we make such a fundamental change, it is essential that full consideration is given to the potential impact to ensure that any changes are workable and do not have any unintended consequences. We should undertake such considerations alongside wider Government work to address the harm done by alcohol to health. For example, if we were to introduce the objective now, we would need to consider carefully—as we are—what the knock-on consequences might be.
If an area has public health challenges caused by deprivation, does that mean, strictly applying such a rule, that it should automatically have no licensed premises and is that acceptable? We need to consider such detailed factors carefully in the context of the consequences of making such a radical change. That is why we need to consider the question carefully and cautiously, albeit that I have sympathy with the points about public health. That was why we raised the issue in our consultation last August but felt, on the basis of the representations we received, that it was important to reflect on the matter and to consider it further in that context and in the context of the wider work that is taking place.
The hon. Lady made a good point about the Scottish licensing laws, which have an objective to protect and improve public health. We are keen to learn any lessons from the Scottish experience. The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 only came into force in September 2009, it will be evaluated and we look forward to learning from it. There are other differences in the Scottish framework, such as the powers to control density of premises, which raise their own issues and would need to be taken into account.
As announced in the “Healthy lives, healthy people” document, we want to improve alcohol treatment services through a greater focus on outcomes and payment by results. We also want to improve the commissioning of preventive services, including brief interventions by health professionals, so there is a broader focus that we wish to take on board. The hon. Lady mentioned the responsibility deal, but this is only a first step. The initial pledges will form an important platform for future work. Networks are already developing the next tranche of pledges, which we expect to go much further and to demand much greater commitment and action on the industry’s part.
On pricing, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), we have announced that we intend to ban below-cost sales, setting at the level of duty plus VAT. That is an important first step in setting out a framework that we can evaluate and work from, so I see it as an important first step in dealing with the impact of alcohol prices on public health and on crime and disorder. These are complex issues, which is why it is important to do things in a measured way.
The Minister announced in January his intention to legislate on minimum pricing. Can he update us on when those measures will come before the House?
We are considering this matter very carefully so that it is introduced in a less bureaucratic and a straightforward way. We will put further proposals before the House in due course because this is something we are committed to. Having made the announcement, we will be following through on this. It is important to ban below-cost sales and introduce the duty-plus-VAT measure that we announced at the start of the year. The Government are committed to following through on that.
The Government have already made provision in the Bill to make primary care trusts and local health bodies responsible authorities. That will ensure that local health bodies can influence licensing determinations by making representations based on local health evidence such as accident and emergency statistics. Those representations will need to be linked to existing licensing objectives to be relevant. Health bodies have a clear interest in the existing Licensing Act objectives, as I have mentioned, so we think it is an important step to recognise their role in that way.
For the reasons I have given, I ask the Opposition not to press the new clause and to allow the Government to examine this issue further and learn from the evidence and experience that is emerging from elsewhere. We can then consider what is the best way of legislating to make public health a material consideration within the licensing process, thereby recognising the points that have been made this afternoon and, equally, that this is a complex area. Doing things effectively and in the right way is the best course of action.
I am grateful to the Minister for his warm words about looking at public health and alcohol and I hope that we will see some more action on this. On minimum pricing, I am concerned that the announcement was back in January but I think there is genuine willingness to move forward on this. I have set out my concerns that the minimum pricing level that the coalition has announced is not high enough, but if we are going to do this, let us get on and do it. I do not quite understand why there is delay, because the coalition has made its announcement and stated its position. I listened to the Minister’s comments about the time frame, but “in due course” can mean quite a few things in the House of Commons, so I will certainly be looking to see what progress is made, because it is time to get on with this.
It is disappointing that the Bill does not address the issues of pre-loading and the concerns that people are expressing up and down the land about the low cost of alcohol in supermarkets. I am keen to work positively with the coalition on this important issue and I strongly hope that there will be real progress in the coming months. I hope also that the health organisations that have walked away from the responsibility deal negotiations can be brought back in and reassured that there is genuine commitment on the part of the coalition to deal with health and alcohol issues. On the basis of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 22, page 87, line 26, leave out ‘authorisations’ and insert
‘premises licences and club premises certificates’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 23 to 30.
These are minor amendments to the late-night levy clauses in part 2 that clarify the effect of the provisions. To avoid possible misinterpretation, the Bill should use consistent terminology. Amendments 22 and 30 intend to achieve that end. Amendments 26 and 27 amend clause 133 merely by making it clear that if licensing authorities amend the categories of premises in their area that benefit from an exemption or reduction in their levy liability for a subsequent year there may already be none as well as one or more premises in those categories for the existing year.
Amendments 28 and 29 remove a drafting error in clause 133 and clarify the basis on which licensing authorities must ensure that any exemption or reduction categories that apply in their areas in a subsequent year accord with the categories prescribed in regulations. Amendments 23, 24 and 25 ensure that local authorities do not suffer a burden in introducing the late-night levy. They do not change the intention underlying the levy, nor do they change the burden on business.
The Bill as it stands allows licensing authorities to deduct the costs that they incur in the “collection, administration or enforcement” of the levy from the levy revenue. However, it has become clear that that phraseology, including the reference to administration, does not include the specific costs of introducing the levy. A licensing authority will need to carry out a number of administrative procedures before collecting the levy. First, it will hold a consultation on the way in which it wishes to operate the levy. That is an important process, and it ensures that the community’s opinions are heard. Following a decision to adopt the levy, the licensing authority will announce its intentions. Some businesses will decide that they do not open long enough in the levy period to make it worth while to pay it. To avoid the levy, those businesses will be able to make a free change to their licence. However, that means that licensing authorities must process the licence variations without recovering costs. Amendments 22, 23, 24 and 25 will ensure that licensing authorities can deduct the costs of those introductory processes from the levy revenue.
I do not want the levy to become a burden on licensing authorities. It has always been my intention that it should be self-funding while raising a significant amount of money for the police and other organs of local government. The amendments ensure that that is the case. Let me reiterate that the amendments will have no further impact on business. We have published indicative levy charges, which will remain the same. To make some simple clarifications and to ensure licensing authorities bear no burden as a result of the late-night levy, I urge the House to accept the amendments.
May I ask the Minister to clarify a few points? There will be a number of changes to the licensing provisions in the months and years to come, and I should be grateful if he set out his intentions on whether additional support or resources will be provided for local authorities when those new schemes are adopted. For instance, will additional financial resources be made available to assist local authorities with the late-night levy and early morning restriction orders in ensuring that information is provided to businesses? Clear guidance should be issued about what that will mean for businesses.
We have held a number of short debates about the late-night levy and the possibility that operating just one night a year can make a business liable for the levy. Businesses are often busy just trying to operate on a daily basis without having to get to grips with the minutiae of new legislation. Will the Minister set out what the Home Office intends to do to ensure that businesses are fully acquainted with the requirements of the new legislation and exactly what it will mean for them? Costs can be deducted from the late-night levy if someone has participated in the consultation on whether to have a late-night levy. Will that all be set out in a clear and transparent way so that businesses understand exactly why they will have to pay a certain amount? Setting things out in a clear format that is easy to understand will be the key to ensuring that the new licensing provisions operate well. If the other amendments in the group are intended just to tidy up the legislation and make it read more smoothly, my only question is on how the operation of getting information out to businesses would be provided.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Her point on guidance is relevant. As I have indicated, as part of the implementation of the late-night levy it is intended that guidance would be drawn up on the process and that it would deal with some of the detail in regulations on the issues I have already highlighted. [Interruption.] I have only started and already the hon. Lady wants me to give way.
Will the guidance provided on that basis be statutory guidance, or guidance that can be ignored?
I am not sure that guidance can be ignored. It is intended to be of assistance in the implementation of the proposals on the late-night levy. The key element that the hon. Lady has highlighted relates to costs and resourcing. We are bringing forward some of these changes to ensure that licensing authorities can take account of the set-up costs relating to the late-night levy, which might otherwise be an issue. We think that it is important to introduce the amendment to ensure that, as with the different examples I have already given, there are no unintended consequences and that, if we are seeking to ensure that costs are properly attributed, that is built into the structure of the late-night levy.
The hon. Lady made a general point on transparency and how costs are to be drawn up. That is a fair point which I take on board, and we will work through that in detail on implementation so that businesses are clear about the calculation and which costs will be brought into effect for the deduction. It is worth saying, however, that it is a deduction and the levy itself is a fixed figure; we are talking simply about what is being deducted and the 70:30 split, with which she will be familiar. In some ways that relates to our previous debate on the general licensing fees and the costs that can be attributed for the maintenance of the Licensing Act. Some of her comments may be addressed in that direction as well.
Clearly, we want to ensure that the late-night levy is a success. We want local authorities to come forward with it. We believe that allowing the set-up costs is an important part of ensuring that the levy operates well and does not have unintended consequences. That will ensure—this reflects some of the comments in the preceding debate—that the levy will be used by local authorities, will be useful and will contribute to managing the late-night economy and dealing with some of the challenges we have heard about this afternoon. That is why we believe that the Bill and its provisions on the late-night levy mark an important step forward in assisting local communities and local authorities to manage the problems of alcohol and the late-night economy. I therefore hope that hon. Members will be minded to support the amendment.
Amendment 22 agreed to.
Net amount of levy payments
Amendments made: 23, page 89, line 20, leave out from ‘of’ to ‘may’ in line 22 and insert ‘relevant expenses which’.
Amendment 24, page 89, line 23, leave out third ‘the’ and insert ‘any’.
Amendment 25, page 89, line 28, at end insert—
‘(2A) In subsection (2)(a), “relevant expenses” means expenses incurred by a licensing authority in the administration of the late night levy requirement including, in particular, such expenses incurred in, in connection with or in consequence of—
(a) any decision mentioned in section 134(1);
(b) collection of payments of the late night levy;
(c) enforcement of the late night levy requirement.
(2B) Expenses incurred by a licensing authority which fall within subsection (2A)(a) include, in particular, expenses which it incurs in connection with any application made by virtue of section 134(2)(c).’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Amendment of late night levy requirement
Amendments made: 26, page 90, line 38, leave out ‘different’ and insert ‘any’.
Amendment 27, page 90, line 39, after ‘apply’, insert
‘in addition to any that currently apply, or to cease to apply,’.
Amendment 28, page 91, line 7, leave out 'by virtue of section 132(1)(b) or (iii)'
‘as the result of a relevant decision’.
Amendment 29, page 91, line 11, at end insert—
‘( ) In subsection (4)(b), “relevant decision” means a decision under—
(a) section 132(1)(b)(ii) or (iii), or
(b) subsection (1)(c) of this section.’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Permitted exemption and reduction categories
Amendment made: 30, page 92, line 41, leave out from ‘all’ to ‘that’ in line 42 and insert
‘holders of relevant late night authorisations in’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Demonstrations in vicinity of Parliament: repeal of SOCPA 2005 provisions
I beg to move amendment 162, page 94, line 27, leave out subsection (2).
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 163, page 94, line 32, leave out clause 141.
Amendment 164, page 95, line 7, leave out clause 142.
Amendment 171, page 95, line 7, leave out clause 142 and insert—
‘142 Injunctions to prevent a prohibited activity in controlled area of Parliament Square
(1) The High Court may grant an injunction against a person under this section if—
(a) it is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the respondent has engaged in, or is about to engage in, a prohibited activity; and
(b) the injunction is necessary to stop the person doing a prohibited activity or from starting a prohibited activity.
(2) For the purposes of this part, a “prohibited activity”; is an activity—
(a) which may result in serious public disorder or serious damage to property; or
(b) where the purpose of the activity is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do.
(3) A person who fails without reasonable excuse to comply with a prohibition in an injunction order under section 143(1) is in breach of the injunction.’.
Amendment 176, in clause 142, page 95, line 8, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 185, page 95, line 8, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.
Amendment 177, page 95, line 12, at end insert—
‘(1A) In subsection (1) a “senior police officer” means the most senior in the rank of police officers present at the scene.’.
Amendment 195, page 96, line 12, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘3’.
Amendment 165, page 96, line 13, leave out clause 143.
Amendment 172, page 96, line 13, leave out clause 143 and insert—
‘143 Injunctions under section 142: content and duration
(1) A condition included in an injunction ordered by the High Court under section 142(1) may prohibit the person from—
(a) being in the controlled area of Parliament Square for the purpose of undertaking a prohibited activity; or
(b) entering the controlled area of Parliament Square for the purpose of undertaking a prohibited activity.
(2) An injunction prohibiting a person from being in or entering the controlled area of Parliament Square continues in force until—
(a) the end of such period on which the injunction is made as may be specified by the court making the injunction; or
(b) if no period is specified, the end of the period of seven days beginning with the day on which the injunction is made.
(3) A period specified under subsection (2)(a) may not be longer than seven days.’.
Amendment 178, in clause 143, page 96, line 20, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 193, page 96, line 22, leave out ‘90 days’ and insert ‘seven days’.
Amendment 194, page 96, line 24, leave out ‘90 days’ and insert ‘seven days’.
Amendment 186, page 96, line 20, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.
Amendment 179, page 96, line 26, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 187, page 96, line 26, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.
Amendment 166, page 96, line 40, leave out clause 144.
Amendment 173, page 96, line 40, leave out clause 144 and insert—
‘144 Applications for injunctions under section 142
(1) An application for an injunction under section 142 may be made by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to the High Court.
(2) Notice of any application under subsection (1) must be served on the respondent in accordance with the rules of the court.
(3) The court must give the respondent an opportunity to make representations in proceedings before it about the making of an injunction.’.
Amendment 180, in clause 144, page 96, line 41, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 188, page 96, line 41, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.
Amendment 181, page 96, line 43, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 189, page 96, line 43, leave out ‘or officer’.
Amendment 182, page 97, line 1, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Government amendment 57.
Amendment 183, page 97, line 6, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 190, page 97, line 6, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.
Government amendment 58.
Amendment 184, page 97, line 7, leave out ‘constable’ and insert ‘senior police officer’.
Amendment 167, page 97, line 28, leave out clause 145.
Amendment 174, page 97, line 28, leave out clause 145 and insert—
‘145 Breach of injunction
(1) The court may impose a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale where—
(a) an injunction under section 142 is granted against a person, and
(b) on an application made by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, the court is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person is in breach of the injunction without reasonable excuse.
(2) For the avoidance of doubt, subsection (1) grants the only powers available to the court where it finds that an injunction under section 142 has been breached.’.
Amendment 196, page 97, line 28, leave out clause 145 and insert—
‘145 Power of court on conviction
(1) The court may, following the conviction of a person under section 141, make an order requiring the person not to enter the controlled area of Parliament Square for such period as may be specified in the order which may not exceed seven days.
(2) Power of the court to make an order under this section is in addition to the court’s power to impose a fine under section 142(8).’.
Amendment 168, page 98, line 1, leave out clause 146.
Amendment 175, page 98, line 1, leave out clause 146 and insert—
‘146 Discharge of injunction
(1) The court may discharge an injunction if an application to discharge the injunction is made.
(2) An application to discharge the injunction may be made by
(a) Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis who applied for the injunction; or
(b) the respondent.
(3) Before applying for the discharge of an injunction, the applicant mentioned in subsection (2) must notify the other.’.
Amendment 191, in clause 147, page 98, line 34, leave out ‘authorised officer and’.
Amendment 169, page 98, line 34, leave out clause 147.
Amendment 170, page 99, line 4, leave out clause 148.
I almost feel like apologising to the House for burdening it with so many amendments, but let me just explain the grouping of the amendments, which come in three blocks.
The first block starts with amendment 162, and includes consequential amendments 163 to 170. I will discuss the effect of the block later, but effectively it would remove the provisions in the previous Government’s legislation and prevent the current proposals from going through.
The second block includes amendments 171 to 174, amendment 196 and amendment 175, and it is an attempt to ameliorate the Government’s proposals.
The third block, which includes amendment 176 and amendment 185 onwards, is the last resort and an attempt to try to introduce some protections to the legislation. I would welcome the opportunity, ideally, to vote on the first block, which means voting on amendment 162, and at least on the last block, which means voting on amendment 185. If there is a choice, may I ask that we vote at least on amendment 185?
I declare an interest, because this part of the Bill deals with protestors in Parliament square, and I am a regular protestor there. I support Brian Haw, Maria and all the others. In fact, I was photographed on the demonstration at one point, and the image was included in the Tate Britain exhibition that won the Turner prize—so Members are now being addressed by a Turner prize.
That says a lot about the Turner prize!
We shall have another discussion, on aesthetics, later.
I am sure that all Members will be aware that Brian Haw is being treated for cancer, and, whatever our feelings about the protest camp and, in particular, Brian himself, I am sure that we all wish him well in his recovery, even though some might not want a specific geographical location designated for that recovery.
I will explain the background to the amendments, because the issue was excellently debated in what was an entertaining Committee. I am not often placed on such Committees—on average, it happens once every 10 years—but I read the Committee notes and thought that it was an excellent debate about the background to the Bill and the amendments themselves.
As people know, Brian took up his protest a decade ago, and anyone who has ever talked to him will understand his fervent belief in the need for peace and for the avoidance of war, and his concern for the innocent victims of war. His chosen method of protest has been to bear witness in front of the Houses of Parliament to the suffering of others as a result of war, and he has done so by choosing to place an encampment in the square, by addressing Members and others with a loudhailer and by engaging in discussions with others to try to convince them of the errors of entering into military action.
Brian reminds us all of the consequences of the decisions that we take in this place, and he perhaps attempts to influence us in our future decisions. His is a traditional form of protest: peaceful, non-violent and similar to protests that have occurred elsewhere in this country and throughout the world.
When the original proposals came forward under the previous Government, we engaged in that debate and a number of Members expressed their extreme dislike of Brian Haw and his colleagues’ presence outside Parliament. I sat through endless pompous speeches about the sanctity of Parliament square, complaints about not being able to work for the noise of the loudhailer that Brian used, and long-winded debates about the aesthetics of Parliament square. I have a sneaking suspicion that what a number of Members did not like was being reminded of the impact of the decisions that they had taken in this House—decisions that have caused so much human suffering.
The previous Government nevertheless brought forward legislation, which, I think we all agree now, was tedious, bureaucratic and unworkable—and has degenerated into farce. I commend the comedian Mark Thomas for his work to expose its farcical nature. Interestingly, the poor drafting of that legislation meant that it failed to deal with what many Members thought was the harm being done by Brian’s presence, because the legislators—I did not like to point it out to them at the time—failed to make it retrospective, so it never addressed the issue of the encampments. In addition, the permit system became a mockery of what the legislation intended. It degenerated into farce when one person was arrested simply for reading out the names of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I welcomed—and I said so publicly—the statements by the former Opposition that that legislation would be repealed. I made that very clear before the election and during the election campaign as a result of which the coalition Government were formed. The problem is that this Bill does not scrap the previous Government’s proposals. In fact, it impedes peaceful protest. I give this warning: if it goes through, it will degenerate into the same unworkable and unmanageable farce that the previous legislation degenerated into. Having looked at the evidence from Committee and read the discussions, I think that these proposals will put an unmanageable burden on police officers and local authority officers, and increase their vulnerability to conflict rather than reducing it.
In my view, the Government’s proposals are unacceptably restrictive. They replace one unworkable system with another and have the same effect of restricting, for no good, sensible reason, the right of peaceful protest and assembly and free speech in Parliament square. These proposals are still specific to Parliament square, although I accept that the definition is narrower than in the previous Government’s legislation. The proposals still place a burden on a constable, but extend it to a local council officer to direct a person to stop doing something and to use physical force to take equipment away. Under the proposals, a person who is convicted may be fined up to £5,000, which is a level 5 offence—I find that draconian, to say the least, and well over the top—and a formal application would still have to be made concerning loudspeaker use and to prevent the erection of sleeping structures.
The bizarre debate in Committee about what is a sleeping structure was extremely entertaining. The most intense and heated part of the debate involved the modernist versus the traditionalist: those who supported the duvet approach to sleep as against those who supported the blanket and sheet approach. That is the nature of the judgments and valuations that individual police officers will have to make: “Is that a sleeping bag I see in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”; “Is that a sleeping structure you’re carrying with you or a banner supporting the Police Federation?” It will become absolutely ludicrous. The other issue is this: what if someone can sleep standing up, leaning against a structure or against a wall? Does that become a sleeping structure itself? We will go through the same old problems that we had with the previous legislation.
I will be brief, because other Members want to speak, and there is another important group of amendments to discuss. The reasons for the amendments are very straightforward; they have been rehearsed in Committee and in debates on the previous Government’s legislation. In this country, we pride ourselves on a strong democratic tradition of peaceful protest. That has created climates of opinion external to Parliament that have influenced decisions in this House and the decisions of Governments of all political persuasions. It is linked to the fundamental right to free speech and fundamental right of assembly and association. In everything that we do in this House, it behoves us to guard against undermining any of those basic human rights.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the right of peaceful protest and the strength of our great British democracy in allowing that. Surely, however, there is a distinction to be made between those who are genuine protesters—I rather agree with him about loudspeakers, incidentally—and those who are campers and dossers staying on a permanent basis, and who are demonstrably an eyesore.
I do not think that the peace campaigners in Parliament square are vagrants or dossers; they are performing a basic democratic service. If they were vagrants or dossers, other legislation, which is used on a regular basis across the country, is available to address that problem. Spending parliamentary time specifically to target half a dozen people who are trying to express their democratic wishes demonstrates to the outside world that we might not have our priorities right.
I am sorry that I missed the earlier part of my hon. Friend’s contribution. He will be aware that a great deal of parliamentary time has been spent discussing Parliament square over the years, all of which has been unsuccessful from the point of view of those who want to clear it of all signs of protest. Is he aware that in the United States, there has been a peace camp outside the White House for some 15 years, and that there have been peace camps outside the Australian Parliament and other places? Is it not part of something that we should be proud of, namely the democratic tradition?
It is exactly that. Before my hon. Friend arrived, I mentioned that it is a traditional form of expressing democratic views. Rather than banning or impeding it, we should celebrate it. It is as simple as that.
This matter is linked to fundamental human rights. In the Human Rights Act 1998, we adopted those human rights specifically in legislation, but we accepted that they are qualified and can be limited. I accept that, but any limit has to be proportionate and for a legitimate aim. We have to be clear what harm is being inflicted as a result of an individual’s activities if we are going to restrict their fundamental rights. That is the problem with this debate and the debate under the previous Government. There has been no clarification of exactly what harm is being done outside Parliament that requires such disproportionate legislation. As far as I can see, there is no legitimate aim in the proposals of this Government, just as there was not in those of the previous Government.
The issue of security was raised by the previous Government and in the Public Bill Committee. People will remember the ludicrous debate that was held last time around when we were all worried that members of al-Qaeda would hide behind the banners erected by Brian Haw. That was actually suggested in this Chamber. I remember the last IRA attack in London because it nearly hit us when I was in my office. It came from a Transit van that fired missiles, which landed near No. 10. The police officer made it very clear in Committee that the peace campaigners out there have allowed their tents to be searched whenever they have been asked. There is no security risk.
The other issue is whether there is a threat to public order or any form of violent behaviour associated with the peace camp. As far as I am aware, none of the peace campers, including Brian Haw, has been prosecuted for violent behaviour. That issue has not been raised to promote this legislation.
The main objection is therefore the aesthetic one. People do not like the look of a few tents and campaigners outside Parliament. I do not accept that people’s aesthetic judgments can be used to undermine someone’s basic human rights of free speech, association and assembly. And anyway, the protest won the Turner prize, so there are different judgments here about aesthetics. However, I do not want to get hon. Members going about the Turner prize. It reduces the argument ad absurdum that we regularly spend a few hours in Parliament on an aesthetic judgment because some peace campaigners outside Parliament annoy a small, or perhaps even a large, number of Members.
My hon. Friend will know that the processions of our fallen will no longer go through Wootton Bassett, and that an attempt was made to move the announcement of the names of the fallen from Wednesday to a Monday and a Tuesday. The Government wished to bury the bad news. Is it not a matter for celebration that Brian Haw, through all weathers and for 10 years, has reminded us in the House of the terrible results of war and the price of those who have fallen?
Whether or not people agree with Brian—and I do—he provides us with an essential service in reminding us of the consequences of our decisions in the House. That might offend some people, but sometimes it is helpful to have such offence to draw our attention to the consequences of what we do here. Whatever Members think, and whether or not the tents annoy people who think they are messy or untidy, that is no reason to take away people’s right to choose their method of peaceful protest.
If the hon. Gentleman was not prepared to accept the distinction that I proposed to him a moment ago, might he not accept that there is a distinction to be made between Brian Haw, who is quite possibly a genuine peace protester and possibly to be respected for his commitment, and the large number of other people who have appeared in recent months and put up their tents? Who knows who they are? If he will not accept that distinction, how many more tents should we accept in Parliament square before we decide that the people in them are illegal campers rather than protestors?
The hon. Gentleman has an exceptionally valid point, which has to be addressed reasonably. Wherever in the country we find that constructions have been erected that people find objectionable, we use planning legislation to deal with them. That legislation already exists. The other people who have joined Brian Haw are mostly peace protestors, and others have come along in support of other causes. If the hon. Gentleman remembers, we had the Tamils come along when the war in Sri Lanka was going on. They camped there for a week, and it would have been heart-rending to try to shift them when they were seeking to influence us to intervene to seek peace, which we did. We helped as best we could to prevent further disaster in Sri Lanka. It is all a matter of reasonable judgment and trying to ensure that we protect basic human rights. The grounds for incursions on human rights cannot just be about the aesthetic displeasure of a number of Members of the House. That is why repealing the previous Government’s legislation was extremely important.
In the debate on that legislation, and I believe in Committee on the Bill, the question was asked whether allowing one group of people to protest precluded others from turning up to protest. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, to which I pay tribute for the support it has given us on the issue, has made it clear that there has been no evidence of other people saying that they cannot protest, or of a backlog of protestors unable to get to Parliament square.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend on that point. I can recall at least two demonstrations in the square that Brian Haw and others possibly did not support. One was when a pig, Winston, was kept there for some months by a pig breeders association, until Winston became too big for the square and had to move on to pastures new. There was also the pro-hunting lobby, for which I do not think Brian Haw had a huge amount of sympathy. Nevertheless, the pro-hunting lobby and the peace campaigners managed to co-exist for quite a long time. That proves that democracy can work even in Parliament square.
There was a worrying consequence of one of those cases—I think Winston got eaten, as a form of capital punishment introduced as a result of what happened. However, a range of protests have taken place in Parliament square unhindered by Brian Haw and the other protestors. If there were a specific harm caused, and one protestor or group of protestors was preventing others from protesting, we should legislate on that specifically rather than have the blanket approach in the Bill.
The amendments are fairly extensive and are in three basic batches. The first begins with amendment 162, and suggests scrapping the previous scheme and preventing the new scheme from being introduced. The proposal is based on the commitments that both coalition parties made before the election, and the argument is the same: this Government’s proposals disproportionately target protests and protesters, just as the previous Government’s measures did. The amendments would remove the powers to harass peaceful protesters. It is very straightforward: there is enough legislation on the books already to prevent protests in Parliament square that we feel impede the operation of Parliament or in any way cause disorder. In effect, the amendments would remove the restriction on protests in Parliament square overall.
The second of three batches of amendments begins with amendment 171. They propose a reasonable, and a more appropriate and proportionate, alternative. Basically, amendment 171 would introduce an injunction process, whereby people concerned about prohibited activity within the square could apply to the High Court for an injunction. It defines “prohibited activity” not as tents or the use of loudhailers, but specifically as something that
“may result in serious public disorder or serious damage to property; or…where the purpose of the activity is the intimidation of others with a view to compelling them not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act that they have a right not to do.”
Existing public order legislation can already deal with security concerns and violence within the square, but if hon. Members want specific powers, the amendment would give people the opportunity to seek an injunction, which would be imposed by the High Court if it reasonably believed that a prohibited activity or serious disorder was being planned or had taken place. Basically, that would introduce due process into the act of preventing people from undertaking protests within the square when that could result in public harm. The harm on the basis of which someone’s human rights can be restrained and constrained is thereby defined. Amendment 174 would in addition reduce the overall penalty to level 3, which attracts a £1,000 penalty, rather than the current £5,000 penalty.
Our next batch of amendments—the batch of last resort—addresses who will implement the legislation. As I said, at the moment, the existing legislation and the Bill put an unmanageable burden on police officers. At the same time, the Bill introduces local authority officers into what could be very difficult and dangerous waters.
I propose that if a police officer is to take such decisions, it should be a senior police officer rather than a constable. We should remember that the decision will be to direct someone that they cannot protest in a certain way, and that they must give over their loudhailers, sleeping equipment or whatever. The officer will also have the ability to use force to take such things and arrest people, which is an extensive power that could cause unnecessary conflict. That should be done by a senior officer.
Amendment 185 would mean that if an officer is to arrest someone, that officer should at least be a police constable—I do not believe that that should be the role of a local authority officer. The Bill introduces a vulnerability to local authority officers, who are not trained to undertake such work, and who are not capable of exercising the judgment that police officers exercise. Police officers are trained to make judgments instantaneously on whether someone is committing an offence, and on balancing human rights and an individual’s behaviour. A series of linked amendments would mean that a court could prohibit someone for only seven days rather than 90, although I can understand why certain Labour Whips do not want that for some of us.
As I said, amendment 174, which is in this batch, seeks to reduce the scale of the fine from £5,000 to £1,000—from level 5 to level 3. It is a matter of judgment, but I feel that the fine of £5,000 is so heavy that it will intimidate anyone seeking to organise a protest on the square or even thinking of applying for a licence, because something could go wrong and they would then be held liable. Rather than risk people thinking twice and therefore not coming along to protest legitimately, we should err on the side of caution before deterring people from such activity.
The amendments would define the powers on court conviction much more clearly to avoid the individual summary offence. They also address issues involving the forfeiture of any items. There is a danger that, under the wide and vague power given to police officers at the moment, police officers can take goods from people in a summary way without there being recourse to the courts.
I have rattled through the amendments, because I know that a lot of Members want to speak. [Interruption.] Well, I think they do. Certainly, members of the Committee will want to speak. However, the issue before us sets a test for individual Governments. It relates not only to major issues, but to smaller ones such as this. It is a test of whether Governments are, as they say they are, truly liberal and committed to human rights, and whether they really want to be reforming Governments. This might seem like a minor issue for the House to be addressing—I do not think that we should be wasting our time, and we should not be introducing this sort of legislation—but it is an important test on which the Government will be judged.
In opposition, the Conservative party agreed that this legislation was outrageous and illiberal, and it promised before the election that it would scrap it and support the right of peaceful protest, which I supported as well. Now the Government have introduced proposals that vary very little from the existing regime. In fact, they will become equally contradictory. As a result of this small matter, I believe judgments will be made on the illiberality of the coalition Government, and on their competence too. If this measure is implemented, and individual officers seek to enforce it, it will produce conflict. It will demonstrate an illiberality of mind and the oppressive nature of the Government’s approach.
On that basis, it would be wrong to legislate in this way. I appeal to the traditions not only of my own side but of the Liberals in respect of the right to protest and to freedom of speech, and those of the Conservative party in respect of individualism. I think Disraeli said that man is great when he is motivated by his passions. Those people out there are motivated by a passion for peace and against war. We should not do anything to impede the expression of their views, but that is what this legislation does, and that is why I urge the Government either to withdraw the provisions or support at least elements of my amendments.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)—and, I suspect, every other Member in the House at the moment—I did not have the privilege of being on the Bill Committee. As he will appreciate, however, Parliament square stands in my constituency.
I have quite a lot of sympathy with a number of the things the hon. Gentleman said in speaking to his amendments. Above all, there is nothing worse than the sheer powerlessness of this place in the public’s eye. He was right about the indeterminate number of hours spent on this small matter over the past 10 years. We need only consider the incidents and terrible disturbances last weekend on Piccadilly circus and Oxford street. There is a sense of powerlessness. Many constituents—they would not necessarily blame the police, and neither would I—think, “These events are allowed to go ahead, yet we have absolutely no say in the matter.”
In many ways, I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the sense in which Parliament is weak and almost entirely marginalised when such debates take place. A decision can be taken by Executive order to go to war and then be rubber-stamped 48 hours later in a parliamentary debate. I know that he and I take very different views about the rightness of what has happened, but I would agree with him in this regard: we spend endless hours debating such matters to no avail and end up with unworkable legislation. We have had some unworkable legislation in the past, so I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s fears that we might be going down that route again.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to have open opportunities for the public to protest. Whether we like it or not, Parliament square is an iconic place, in front of the Parliament building. There can be no other place where a more legitimate protest can take place, on an occasional and high-profile basis. I would be loth to repeat the idea of the erstwhile Administration, which was to have a 1-mile exclusion zone around Parliament, on the spurious grounds, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, of security. That was entirely wrong and an absolutely absurd route to go down. To that extent, my party has gone down the right route in this Bill by trying to row back from that position.
However, I share fears about the legislation still being slightly unworkable, not least because so many different authorities are involved, from the police and Transport for London, to the Mayor of London and Westminster city council. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about too much power potentially being in the hands of local authority officers. I do not doubt their ability: many are very able and have shown great judgment. Indeed, in places such as Westminster, local authority officers deal with such problems on a more day-to-day basis than they might in—with great respect—a borough such as Hillingdon. Ultimately, however, these are policing matters. Given the security, the high profile and the difficulty of a lot of what happens in Parliament square, it makes sense for the Metropolitan police to be involved in the process, rather than local authority officers.
Can the hon. Gentleman update us and clarify whether it is true that the local authority and the Mayor have now secured sufficient legal judgments in the courts to remove the peace camp in due course anyway?
I understand that that will be “in due course”, and there is of course an important event on 29 April, which is in everyone’s minds when it comes to trying to clear the square, which is very much a focus.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that we have to trample on the precious freedom to demonstrate in order to tidy the background for the royal snapshots?
The hon. Gentleman might not be quite as much of a royalist and a monarchist as I am, but he will appreciate that that is not what I am saying. However, there was a focus on trying for this thing, although the wheels of the law take a while to turn—there are a number of lawyers in the House, including, either side of me in the Chamber, some rather more distinguished lawyers than I ever was in my brief legal career. I understand that there will be no further legal proceedings on the matter until considerably after 29 April.
It occurs to me that the people in Parliament square might actually be awaiting the royal wedding and have got themselves a good place from which to see it. They have got there early. We should commend them for their enterprise in being there so far ahead of the date.
I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the Evening Standard discovers a secondary market for the tents that are already erected, let alone any new ones that go up.
I suspect I will never get off this point.
But it is a valid point, which was also addressed in Committee. We get ourselves into a ludicrous position in which someone turning up with a sleeping bag to wait for the wedding—as the Prime Minister did, when, as he told us, he turned up with his sleeping bag for a previous royal wedding—could be arrested under the legislation in the same way.
Ad absurdum, the hon. Gentleman’s argument is right. However, that is also precisely the distinction that we have to face: the distinction between a one-off arrangement for the one, exciting night before a major public event, and having a permanent encampment around Parliament square. It is to the latter that most sensible people—not those only in this House, but many millions of our constituents—would turn their minds. It is not acceptable that a UNESCO world heritage site—Parliament square, the parliamentary buildings and Westminster abbey—is blighted by having a large permanent encampment. That is an issue, in part, of aesthetics. However, millions of tourists come to Parliament and they must be dismayed by what they see, week after week, month after month. It cannot make much sense for us to allow it to continue.
To an extent, I had sympathy with elements of what the erstwhile Government were trying to do, such as their idea of having a licensed system covering demonstrations when major debates were taking place. In my view, it would have been entirely legitimate, for example, on the day we had our debate on Libya, for those who felt strongly about the issue, on either side, to have held a large, peaceful demonstration. But the notion that encampments can exist day after day, week after week, is another matter. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Tamil encampment that was in Parliament square in the autumn of 2009, which reached a ludicrous stage. There was a lot of noise and disturbance. There were old-fashioned local authority health and safety issues, as well as the whole question of toilet provision, and the area became something of a health hazard as the Tamil group camped there for six weeks before finally leaving.
Many of our constituents are bemused by our sheer powerlessness, and by the fact that we have not been able to get our act together to get the necessary workable legislation in place to ensure that we can achieve our goal.
One of the reasons that the previous Administration were on such a sticky wicket in regard to the legislation was that it simply did not work. This provision seeks to create a legal regime within which legitimate demonstrations can take place and be adequately controlled in accordance with the UNESCO status of Parliament square.
That’s what the last lot said.
Indeed, one has heard those words before. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) is a relative newcomer to the House, but I fear that we have been having this debate for many years. As we all know, the workability, or otherwise, of legislation often does not become apparent until well after an Act has been placed on the statute book.
It is essential that we do our best, and we must protect the right to protest. I appreciate that Parliament square is a special place for protest, and I would be very loth to see the perhaps spurious ground of security being used to prevent legitimate, high-profile protest on days when debates were taking place in the House of Commons on high-profile legislation. This encampment, however, does disturb some local residents. That certainly happened when the Tamils were here in great numbers in 2009, and many residents wrote to me to say that their sleep was being disturbed.
We need to strike a balance. Either we have to solve this problem or we have to move on, because there is now a sense that we are powerless. Parliament and all the authorities are becoming a laughing stock. This should be a tremendous site for millions of tourists to visit from across the globe. Parliament is the most iconic building in the United Kingdom, and having that eyesore here is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the very valid comments that have been made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, but I also hope that we will move hastily towards getting a workable provision on to the statute book to ensure that that eyesore becomes a thing of the past.
I am sorry that I missed the earlier part of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) for the measured way in which he has represented his constituents in the debate. He is fortunate to represent this constituency, but he also recognises that this area is a centre of national life and that there are bound to be demonstrations here. One should thank him for that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington for tabling the amendment and for his consistency in standing up for civil liberties and the right to protest. We have debated Parliament square on many occasions. Indeed, a Select Committee once took it upon itself to examine the issue, and the former Member for Macclesfield, Sir Nicholas Winterton, invited me to give evidence. The Committee sat in due deliberation for several weeks discussing Parliament square. I gave my evidence, and the former Member for Macclesfield questioned me at some length. I think the House is beginning to get the flavour of the occasion. A report was duly prepared and legislation was duly proposed. That legislation was duly carried, and duly challenged in the courts.
The Herculean parliamentary effort to remove Brian Haw and non-existent protestors from Parliament square succeeded in being passed into law—and the only person unaffected by it was Brian Haw, because he successfully challenged the legislation on the basis that he was a pre-existing resident of Parliament square. One has to pay tribute to Brian Haw for making legal history by doing nothing more than taking up residence in Parliament square. Parliament made itself look a total ass during the whole process, sitting in all due majesty, but having no effect whatever on what Parliament wanted to achieve. We should thank Brian Haw for that. I know he has not been well recently, and I am sure all Members will join me in wishing him well in his recovery. He has shown courage, principle and determination. Not everybody agrees with him, but I think we have to respect it when somebody is prepared to give up such a long period of their life for a cause. Let us all respect it and admire it.
We should also recognise something about the importance of this building and this area of London. The previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had a plan for reducing traffic in Trafalgar square. He succeeded by closing the north side to through traffic and wanted to carry out a similar plan for Parliament square. I am not sure which side of Parliament square was due to be closed, but we should think about this. I feel constantly sorry for the number of visitors arriving to see Parliament. Because of the size of the building, the difficulty of ensuring its security and so forth, the number of people who get in is much smaller than the number who would like to get in. I realise that we are slowly changing that, which is welcome, but most people have to spend most of their time fighting traffic lights and motor traffic simply to see the building. We should invite the Mayor to revisit the whole question of traffic planning, traffic layout, widening pavements and reducing traffic through the square so that everyone can see a very fine and very beautiful building, and enjoy the experience. It is possible to spend some time seeing other national assemblies and Parliaments around the world without having to dodge traffic—I am thinking of the United States, Sweden and a number of other places.
History often turns on itself on these occasions. This country is very good at the incorporatist view of history, as I put it. It is ironic, and many visitors do not always appreciate it, that Oliver Cromwell has a statue outside Parliament, while further up the road is a statue of Charles I and, indeed, not so far away, one of Charles II. They are all part of our history, and they should all be remembered and commemorated for what they did. Many people are vilified for their protests, yet commemorated later. Why do we have a plaque in St Stephen’s entrance to Marjory Hume, who chained herself to a statue there? The statue was damaged during the removal of her chains, when she was there demanding votes for women. Downstairs we have a plaque to Emily Wilding Davison, who locked herself in the broom cupboard to protest about the census of 1911 and in support of voting rights for women. Many other examples of people who have participated in protest outside this building and in this area have become part of our history and part of the road towards what one hopes will be a more democratic society.
Attitudes have changed quite a lot. The Sessional Orders used to be enforced extremely rigorously so that whenever the House was sitting no procession was allowed within a mile of Parliament. The police then relented slightly and changed their attitude. As I recall it, the first time they relented was when General Pinochet was in this country—detained in luxury in Virginia Water. “El Pikete”, as it was known, the Chilean picket that dogged him all the time, had a candle-lit event overnight in Parliament square. It was approved by the police and was an iconic and memorable event; it was part of our history that Pinochet was here. The Stop the War protest took over the square on 18 March 2003. When we debated Trident, the CND protest was here, and others have drawn attention to protests by Tamils, by pig farmers, by the Countryside Alliance and by the pro-hunting lobby—all kinds of people have demonstrated in Parliament square. We are a national Parliament. We are supposed to be the focus of political debate. I think that we make ourselves look more than a little ridiculous if we go to enormous lengths to stop people demonstrating outside Parliament. It is part of a democratic tradition, and it is part of our life.
Every Member will have observed, on television, what happened in Tahrir square in Cairo, in the central square in Tunis or at the Pearl roundabout in Bahrain, and will probably have said, “Good on you, well done, you have stood up against a state that tried to prevent you from demonstrating.” I am not suggesting that the current regime or indeed any other regime in Britain is or has been the equivalent of the regimes in those countries, but I do believe that the principle of the right to protest and to dissent is the very stuff and centre and heart of a democratic society. I hope the House will recognise that the amendments are designed to ensure that the traditional right to protest is maintained, and that protests can take place outside.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said that aesthetic considerations should apply to a world heritage site, and that is true. Some would argue that siting the wheel—the London Eye—across the road was aesthetically inappropriate. Indeed, I advanced that argument very strongly, and for the first 15 years of the London Eye’s existence I refused to go on it. I finally swallowed my pride, relented and went on it last year, and it is a fine experience, particularly on a cloudy day when it is impossible to see anything. I still consider that siting it there disfigured the area, but anyway it has happened.
The hon. Gentleman said that because this was a world heritage site, protests should not be allowed. At least, I think that that is was he was saying, and I do not entirely go along with him. Protests have taken place outside Menwith Hill listening station in Yorkshire for a very long time. Which is the bigger eyesore, the protest or the listening station? I think I know the answer to that, and I think everyone else does as well.
May I clarify what I said? I did not say that there should be no protests, but the permanence of the encampment means that all the paraphernalia of the barricades is there permanently, which is clearly not compatible with a world heritage site under UNESCO rules. I was trying to draw a contrast between that and large-scale demonstrations on, perhaps, half a dozen days a year relating to debates that are taking place in the House.
I was not trying to put words into the hon. Member’s mouth. The agreement of the police to the anti-Pinochet demonstration some years ago showed sensitivity, intelligence and involvement on their part. If we approach the issue in a co-operative way, recognising the right to protest, rather than immediately reaching for the law and the barricades and confiscating equipment, we may proceed a bit further down the road.
The problem with the Bill is that it addresses the issue of protesters sleeping in the square overnight, but does not adequately address the concept of permanence. The peace protesters say, “We are not here permanently; we are just here while the country is at war. Cease the wars and we will depart.”
That is a fair point. It does no harm for Members who come into and go out of the building every day to be reminded that we are involved in wars. I do not think that we should be, but others disagree. In any event, we need to be reminded of the decisions we have taken and of why we have taken them, and there is a constant reminder out there.
British television shows what some people consider to be shocking scenes in Westminster on the occasion of the state opening of Parliament, but other people around the world say to me, “Thank God that you live in a democracy where protest is allowed even on a day like that.” The Queen goes past in the gilded coach, and we see Brian Haw behind her. I think he once gave her a wave, actually. That is an example of protest in a democracy.
Other countries have experienced significant protests, such as Mexico. After the 2006 election, the result of which was hotly disputed, 1 million people occupied the centre of Mexico City for weeks on end in encampments. The mayor of Mexico city decided that it was impossible to move them, and that it would be wrong to do so because they were mounting a legitimate protest. Had he tried to move them, the consequences would probably have been pretty serious and severe.
Democracy is never simple or straightforward, and our image is never straightforward. We do not live on a chocolate box cover or in a postcard environment. We live in a working parliamentary building, and that working parliamentary building ought to be the centre of our democracy. The centre of our democracy is the right to support, the right to protest, the right to dissent, the right to campaign. It is a very powerful tradition.
This House is full of powerful traditions. I think of Charles Bradlaugh and the way he stood up for what he believed, and Tony Benn standing up on the issue of hereditary peerages, and so many others. They are part of our life and our history. We will make ourselves look very silly if we simply stop people taking part in such protests, because if we deny them the right to protest here, they will protest somewhere else; we will move the law somewhere else and make ourselves look even more ridiculous. We should be a bit grown up about this and accept that diversity and differences of view are good things. That is what makes a democracy vibrant and real.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members who have spoken on this topic so far. I absolutely respect the stance of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the passion with which he has spoken on these issues over so many years, and the spirit in which he moved his amendments. I had some sympathy for him, especially after the past 13 years, when he appealed to the Liberal vision of freedom and said that he could not appeal to his own party’s tradition on that.
It is also a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), who clearly knows about these topics, and who perhaps represents in his constituency more historic buildings than I do in Cambridge, which I envy slightly. [Interruption.] It is close, however, as he says.
It was great that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) paid tribute to one of my predecessors as Member for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell, who was probably one of the greatest political reformers the House has ever had. I am not saying I agree with everything he did, but as he is one of my predecessors, I feel I should speak up for him.
Peaceful protest plays a critical role in our country, and I hope that everybody agrees that we should encourage and respect it—I hope we all share that spirit. It is good that the Government are undoing some of the worst things the previous Government did in this area. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the speed of the changes and his wish that they would move faster. I am grateful for the progress that has been made however, and I will continue to try to unwind even faster all the problems that have arisen.
I am not as persuaded as some of the Members who served on the Public Bill Committee—both Government and Opposition—that the encampment in Parliament square is a problem. I do not share the concerns about it being an eyesore; although it is not something I particularly like to see, it does not bother me. We also had a discussion about the effect on tourism, and I do not share that concern to the same extent as some other Members.
I am delighted that the Government are repealing sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. We said we would do that when we came into government—both coalition parties were clear on that. The key question is: should there be any lesser replacement for those provisions? The Metropolitan police have made their attitude to peaceful protest very clear. I have been pressing them on this in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I have the pleasure of serving. They are very clear that their role is not to prevent peaceful protest, and it is not even to allow peaceful protest; Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens was very clear that their role is to facilitate peaceful protest. That is absolutely right. The job of the police is to make it easier for such protests to take place. That does not mean I agree with all the protests—I happen to disagree absolutely with a number of them—but the role of the police must be to try to make it easier for them to happen.
The key question was put very clearly by the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti—she is always very clear—when she asked: what is the harm? I should declare an interest: I used to be on the national council of Liberty, so I am perhaps biased in my opinion of her, but I am sure that other hon. Members would join me in paying tribute to her efforts over so many years in that cause. We need to address the question: what is the harm? We should be having only those controls appropriate to that harm. I do not agree with the level of assessment of harm put forward by some people so I understand the separate blocks of amendments suggested by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, although I hope he is not going to put them all to the vote, because that would take a long time and some of us were hoping to get home to do some constituency work tonight.
The idea of having no constraints is unlikely to attract support—that is a shame, but I have accepted that that is the case—so the debate has been about the practicality of how to work out something that interferes as little as possible with the right to peaceful protest, which I take extremely seriously. We discussed a number of aspects of that in Committee.
It is important to put on record the fact that this debate is not about having no constraints, because the public order legislation is in place. It contains those constraints, which prevent violent disorder and public disturbance.
That is a very good point. A range of legislation applies, and in Committee we discussed some aspects that could or could not be used. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point, but the question is whether the provisions before us are required.
I do not propose to detain the House by going through all the discussions we had in Committee, because I am sure that Members can read Hansard, if they have not already done so—I am sure that many Members have. Questions arise on the scale of activity. There is a spectrum and we need to consider: who should be allowed to do what; how often; and for how long? The worst of the Bill’s original proposals was the one to give council officials, or even non-council officials given authority by a council, the power to use reasonable force to try to deprive a protestor of an item of property. I was extremely alarmed by that. I am not comfortable with the idea that those people, who are not trained, should be allowed to use that power, and I was not alone. I thank the Minister for listening to me when I voiced my concerns early on and for having to endure our talking about it extensively in Committee.
In one of the Committee’s evidence sessions, I asked what our witnesses thought about that proposal. Shami Chakrabarti, from Liberty, made her position very clear:
“I am also very nervous about non-police personnel exercising those powers.”
None of us would be surprised about that. Metropolitan police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens made the point that police officers receive a lot of training and operate within a legislative framework and a misconduct procedure, but she said:
“The provision on the use of force would make us nervous.”––[Official Report, Police Reform and Social Responsibility Public Bill Committee, 20 January 2011; c. 113, Q32.]
As the hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my contribution, I have considerable sympathy with what he is saying. However, how would he view the counter-argument, which is that there is a risk of upping the ante by having people in uniform—police officers—doing this work, rather than making this a local authority-related civil offence? Does he think there is a risk that bringing uniformed officers into the piece could turn a peaceable situation nasty?
There would be no requirement to bring the police in if one did not want to use “reasonable force” powers. I am very alarmed at the idea of a council official, who might not be particularly well trained, who might not be in uniform and who might not have any obvious form of authority, having the power to use reasonable force in such an instance. If I was involved in a situation like that, I would not expect that person to have such powers. If one did not wish to escalate the situation, one could simply not use reasonable force—one could use no force at all.
But does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the use of the words “reasonable force” in the legislation is to protect the council officer, rather than to reflect what might take place?
I think that that was indeed the intention, but “reasonable force” is not a beautifully defined phrase and it is tough to define it. It is particularly tough for people who are not experienced to work out what is and what is not “reasonable force”, particularly in a situation that may well be inflamed. I would not want to see council officials having to make those tough judgment calls.
That brings to me to the comments made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who used to be a police officer and policed public order situations. He made the point that it is hard enough as a police officer to deal with such situations during public order protests. Some people will resist and some will be reluctant to accept authority, and that is in the context of the specific training received by the police, which would realistically not be available to council officials. Bringing police into such a situation, if it escalates, is relatively easy. We are talking about an area that the police can get to pretty quickly if requested—I do not think we are short of police officers around Parliament. Bringing the police in would also comply with other situations. For example, bailiffs will often have the police standing by; they hope not to use them, but they are available if necessary.
The power for council officials and others to take such action was, to me, the single worst item in this part of the Bill and I am therefore delighted that after a number of discussions the Minister and the Government propose to get rid of it. I thank the Minister for his work and for accepting the points that were made. We are not yet in the position I would like to reach, and I hope that there will be opportunities in the other place to discuss the next level up and whether those council officials should make judgments about property confiscation.
I am relatively relaxed, within the context of the framework, with the idea that council officials should be able to give a direction, because non-trained officers are often allowed to do that. Confiscation powers give me a little more pause for thought, however, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. I hope that he will also reflect on our discussions in Committee and elsewhere about the interplay of various other aspects of the situation. A direction can be given lasting for 90 days, it can be given orally and it can be given by one of the officials. I understand the reason for each part—for example, I understand why an oral direction would be needed for a large crowd—and that is why I do not think that the amendments dealing with senior police officers will work. If there were a large number of people, it would be odd to make one police officer go round individually to each one.
There need to be some constraints. A 90-day period under an oral direction is very hard on the person subjected to it, so there should be a written record if at all possible. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and give us some assurances that that will be the case—whether in his comments, in the legislation or in regulations.
The Prime Minister, in one of his more messianic moods, recently told the House that he defended the right to protest from Tahrir square to Trafalgar square. It would not have had the same resonance had he said from Tahrir square to Parliament square, because of the Bill before us today.
I do not know whether Members are familiar with some of the restrictions on our rights as hon. Members to raise certain issues. On two occasions, I have read out the names of the fallen in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, but it is no longer possible to do that because it would be declared out of order—a ruling was made in the previous Parliament. It is now very difficult to read out the names from Afghanistan because there are 320 and, if one included the ranks, it would take half an hour to read them out. We are forbidden as MPs to read out the names of the fallen in the wars who died as a result of our decisions. A woman read out the names of those who had fallen in Iraq at the end of Downing street, and for doing so she was arrested and jailed under, I believe, the Terrorism Act 2000.
Other restrictions have been introduced more recently. There has been a change to the route by which the bodies of the fallen are taken through Wootton Bassett. They will not be taken by that route, a good reason has been given and the town has been given a royal prefix as a tribute to what its people have done. I think we all appreciate the reminder they gave us; it was a powerful picture to see the bodies being brought through Wootton Bassett and to hear the sobs of the families. The grief is obvious on the television. That will not happen any more.
Twice last year, the names of the fallen were announced first on a Monday and next on a Tuesday, and it was only as a result of points of order and early-day motions that we returned to having announcements made at the right time, when they should be made: at Prime Minister’s questions, a time of maximum attendance in this House and maximum attention from the world outside.
I am afraid that the previous Government and this Government want to ignore the consequences of our actions. For 10 years Brian Haw, heroically, has given us and many people in the country a reminder of our decisions.
The practice of the Prime Minister reading out the names of those who have fallen in Iraq or Afghanistan started in June 2003 with Tony Blair. It never happened before. Does my hon. Friend think that we should have read out those names in the Kosovo conflict, the first Iraq war or the Falklands conflict?
Order. We are going wide of the amendment.
In the first world war there were pages in newspapers listing the fallen and those missing in action, so it would not have been practical then, but it is practical in this conflict. Sadly, we are still losing soldiers—about one soldier a week dies in Afghanistan—so it is absolutely right to continue reading out their names and making such announcements. The Government should not stop doing that. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend agrees that MPs should be forbidden from reading out the names of the fallen, but I do not think that was a reasonable decision. I have challenged it and been stopped and I am sure that you would stop me now, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I attempted to read out the names of the fallen.
We really must pay tribute to Brian Haw. On nights when we have finished here and gone out, even in the middle of winter and sometimes in the early hours of the morning, he has been there, night after night, with his simple, anti-war message. Whether we agree with him or not he deserves our admiration and we do not need any attempt to sweep him and his companions out of sight to have a cosmetic effect on the square for an event that will be forgotten in a few years’ time.
I agree entirely with those who have said that the right to protest is honourable. It is a matter of pride when visitors come to London from countries in which any sign of protest would be swept away from their well-manicured streets and tourist attractions. The majority of the world’s countries would not allow such protest to take place in such a situation, but we are better and more advanced than them, and we should be proud that we have the right to protest. It is not available in the House, as it might be, but it is in Parliament square.
I join the diverse coalition of interests championing the right to protest in Parliament square, but I suspect that that is where the similarity between my interests and theirs comes to an end. Suffice it to say that the Government’s proposals take us a long way towards the goal we are all attempting to reach. Some Members might be aware that between 2000 and 2004 I was responsible for eight protests, in different forms, in and around Parliament square, six of which were resoundingly successful but two of which were not. I shall explain why things went wrong on those two. In each circumstance there were conditions that made it almost impossible for the police to safeguard the community and the protestors in a reasonable way. We are getting away from that situation and I commend the Government for their measures in that regard.
In championing the rights of legitimate protest, there are three areas that I want to address—accessibility, affordability and spontaneity. My first point on accessibility is fairly obvious: most protestors need to have the necessary access to make their point while the interests of other users of Parliament square and this building, as well as those of members of the public going about their business, are safeguarded.
Affordability is a rather different issue. It must be in the interests of those of us in this House and outside it to ensure that people who wish to protest can do so with the minimum of obstacles in their way in the lead-up to their protest. If any protestor has to go through a process that involves going as far as obtaining a licence in some instances—not in this one, I add—we will be putting obstacles in the way of those who wish to register, often in the only way they can, their distaste for what we are doing in this House.
Does the hon. Gentleman’s tolerance for protest extend to defending those who invaded this Chamber in support of a cause that he represented?
I shall say only that I am surprised that it took so long for that point to be made. I prefaced my contribution by saying that I was going to discuss legitimate protest, so I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I want to discuss spontaneity. It is vital that we enable people who wish to do so to rise up in anger, frustration and exasperation and express their view loudly and lawfully in the minimum amount of time. If there was a problem with the previous legislation it was that the preparation time for protest was rather lengthy if people followed the measures sequentially. The Government’s proposals will ease that, which is why I am a big supporter, but it is right and proper to enable people who have read the papers one morning metaphorically to bang on the gates the next morning. If we prevent them from doing so we will fall into the trap to which most speakers have referred of setting one set of rules for our country while condemning those in other countries who adopt a different procedure on protests.
I have referred to the two occasions on which protests in which I was involved went wrong. The first took place in 2004, and there was a legitimate presence of angry protesters as well as of police to ensure the safety of the community. The protesters came that day with every intention of being peaceful, and the police policed the event with every intention of its remaining peaceful. However, Members who have taken part in a protest know that it is a potent and often high-temperature environment, and it does not take much to spark something that leads to a sequence of events which, in our case, led to 425 complaints from members of the public, about 60 people being treated in hospital for serious head injuries, a number of arrests, and an inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission that lasted nearly a year, cost a fortune and regrettably resulted in a number of Metropolitan policemen being recommended for disciplinary action or worse. That was a thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion to what should have been a perfectly legitimate protest.
We could debate the cause for hours, but I will suggest one particular reason why it ended up in that unsavoury position. Both parties were the victims of legal rigidity. In the case of the protesters, there was arguably not enough flexibility to enable nearly 20,000 people at one stage to engage in reasonable protest. From the police’s point of view, the confines or boundaries were set too tightly to enable them to adapt and adjust their policing as the protest unfolded over the day. When the IPCC report was eventually published, it focused on three things including, first, a complete breakdown of communications for technical reasons between the police and the protesters. That is not an issue for the Government—it is an issue for protesters and police in future—but the second and third reasons are important.
The IPCC confirmed without any doubt that the lack of loudspeaker equipment in the south-east corner of Parliament square led to an inability by the organisers and the police to communicate with a crowd that was contained and angry, which led to unfortunate downstream consequences. That happened because there was confusion about whether Westminster city council, I think, would allow us to have loudspeakers lest we contravene noise abatement conditions. In the circumstances, the police, in my humble opinion, should have had the operational ability to insist on having equipment on site that could have prevented that incident from arising in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. During one of the Tamil demonstrations that I attended with a number of colleagues from the House, loudspeakers were not allowed for the demonstration. People needed to be moved, because there was a crush in one corner, and the police lent us loud hailers so that we could address the crowd. One could argue that that is breaking the law, but it was sensible and practical. We just need to be a bit more sensible, because there is a safety issue about being unable to communicate with a loud crowd.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The point I am trying to make is that in such circumstances the police should not be encumbered in any way by having to refer to a local authority, some guidelines or a piece of statute. They should be able to make decisions that protect public safety and the interests of this building and of the demonstrators as an event unfolds. It was the inability to do that on the day in September 2004 that led directly to the unfortunate consequences I have described.
It is interesting to see the coalitions developing across the Chamber on shared interests.
The hon. Gentleman will presumably be pleased to see that clause 142(3)(a) states that for police purposes it is not an offence to proceed with such activity, which I think will allay his concerns. On a slightly broader point, has he seen the transcript of the discussions that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has had with the TUC and the Metropolitan police about the planning for the demonstration on 26 March, which looked at the use of loud hailers, other facilities and social media? Would he welcome that level of preparation for events so that problems can be planned for?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The short answer to his question is yes, notwithstanding my earlier comments about the need for spontaneity in—perhaps smaller—events. Steps are being taken in the right direction. However, having been personally responsible for a number of events between 2000 and 2004, I know that we were always led to believe that lessons had been learned from previous protests, but it became quite clear that they had not.
In more recent events in and around Parliament square, and indeed at the G20 demonstrations, it was quite obvious that some of the findings of the IPPC report, which were produced several years ago, had not been implemented, which was unfortunate. Perhaps there is some value, despite the views of one or two Opposition Members, to having this discussion and debate yet again, because it would perhaps lead us a little closer to a situation that is in the interests of protesters first and foremost and parliamentarians last and least.
The third point made in the IPCC’s findings was loosely described as relating to lines. I recall only too vividly being told at my meeting with the responsible commander on the morning of the demonstration in September 2004 that there was an invisible line—a line on his order paper—across which protestors could not pass under any circumstances. It was a ludicrous situation, as he admitted. We explained that it was ludicrous because there was no way to guarantee safely with 20,000 people that none of them would at any stage drift across that line for one reason or another. Flexibility was needed, but there was none. The result was that when protestors did drift across the line, officers fulfilled their orders, which was absolutely right, and started to make arrests, which led to a sudden and irreversible rise in the temperature. That contributed to the transition from an angry but peaceful protest to one that fell apart and resulted in serious injuries for a number of protestors and career-threatening implications for the officers concerned.
That is an extremely valid point. When a particular line is used to demarcate a geographical area, often the protest spills out into another area and matters become confusing. On that basis, I believe that the legislation will simply lead to encampments elsewhere. It is almost a provocation for other encampments breaking out around the city. We should watch Trafalgar square in future; we will be back here in a few months’ time, with Members urging us to bring forward further legislation to deal with other areas of London.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He might be interested to learn that a week after the demonstration we held in September 2004 in Parliament square, the same angry army protested outside the Labour party conference in Brighton. It would be fair to say that the organisers—me—were getting quite nervous at that stage about what might happen in Brighton, but the lessons learned by Sussex police in those few short days in between the two protests were very evident when we got there, because they successfully achieved a flexible attitude to protestors, and as the temperature rose so they retreated, and vice versa.
The second point that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made, which I should address, and which the Metropolitan police acknowledged at the time and subsequently, is that although the law said one thing back in those days, which was, “You cannot march within a mile of the Palace of Westminster when Parliament is sitting,” its enforcement by the police would have been entirely foolhardy. They knew and made it very clear to us that, had they prevented legitimate and angry protestors coming to the gates of Parliament to make their point, the consequences might have been even worse.
I am encouraged by the fact that the Government are moving a significant, if not the whole, way towards a situation in which there is greater recognition of the arguments that I have set out—enabling, I hope, the police to exercise that operational flexibility which is so important, which was so lacking and which led so directly to very unfortunate injuries and consequences for a large number of people who were already angry and frustrated.
I endorse absolutely the comments made by pretty well every other speaker. We should not underestimate the anger and the frustration sometimes at the consequences of the decisions that we make in this House, or the helplessness felt by many people who perhaps reside a long way from here, who can play no part in the political process and for whom protest is the only way in which they can make their feelings loudly and clearly heard not just by us in here, but by the media and the wider public.
I support any measure that makes it easier for protestors to exercise that absolutely ancient and important right, and I am not persuaded by arguments, which I hope will be put not too seriously, that the tidiness of Parliament square for the royal wedding is somehow more important than the ability of people to protest. If in the next few weeks we make a decision that has profound consequences for very many people, and those very many people wish to make their feelings heard, why on earth should they not do so? If that happens to coincide with the royal wedding, I argue that their right to protest is far more important, and I am glad that the Government recognise that point and are enabling protest to take place legitimately.
I much appreciate the speech from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart)—his apologia pro vita sua.
I am trying to find out who was responsible for the dramatic changes to Parliament in my short time here, including, for example, the security screen that we now have between us and the Public Gallery. That came about because somebody who felt passionately about the cause of Fathers 4 Justice also felt that he had the right to come in here and throw a pink powder over the Bench—actually, where the hon. Gentleman is sitting; it did not quite arrive on the Front Bench. As a result, we changed the security laws dramatically.
Then, people felt so passionately about fox hunting that an hon. Member allowed a protestor to infiltrate this very Chamber, and as a result we have much tougher security. In the name of protest, we thus have a denial of the right of British citizens to come freely and easily into this House of Commons. When I was first elected, not so long ago, I took an American intern to Central Lobby, where he watched people coming in. I told him, “Any citizen can come here and ask to see his Member of Parliament,” and he replied, “My God. You let your voters get that close?”
On Monday night, I hosted the Belarus Free Theatre with Mr Jude Law and Kevin Spacey, the two actors. It was a marvellous moment, except that our police—acting under orders; I do not blame them—kept out the men who had been booted out of Belarus by dictatorial policemen. They were not even allowed into our House of Commons in time, so we need to set in some context the importance of access to this Parliament for MPs and for citizens who want to exercise their parliamentary, political and constitutional right to talk to their MPs.
I am concerned about what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. Will he clarify whether the problem was that the police would not allow those people into Parliament, or that they did not get in in time because of inefficiencies in the queuing process?
My point is that we have now instituted such draconian security systems as a result of the invasion of this House—I do not think the hon. Gentleman was here at the time—and the attack from the Gallery that things have become all but impossible, and the police famously do not have the flexibility to allow certain people to come through ahead of ordinary—
Order. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is in full flow, but he will see that we have before us amendment 162 and a lot of other amendments. There is a lot of meat here, and he is on another meal. I ask him to restrict himself to the amendments.
Having enjoyed many happy meals with you in Strasbourg, Mr Deputy Speaker, I always thought we were sharing the same plate.
I will not enter into the question of reading out the names of those who have fallen in war, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) animadverted at great length, and the curious proposition that if one person falls his name should be mentioned, but if 20 or 100 fall there are too many names to read out.
We return, then, to a very important point—the centrality of Parliament and all democratic institutions to which all people should have easy and free access. In several democracies, there is, for good reason, the notion of the parliamentary mile, which means that for approximately 1 mile—a given space—around a Parliament, there should be no protests or demonstrations, and lawmakers should be able to go into their Parliament without being shouted at, as we were here for a number of years by the Iraq war protester with the very loud loudspeaker. We should certainly be able to confront citizens who are protesting or on their way to attend their protests in Trafalgar square, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde park, or wherever. One only has to walk up Whitehall to see a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s house every day, but a Parliament is not a pressure cooker; it is a place for deliberation.
I recall being outside the White House a few years ago when there was a protest about President Clinton’s policy on Haitian refugees, and Arthur Ashe, the tennis player, was arrested and taken away. Those protestors were very brave. They went there, they knew they were going to be arrested, and they were making a profound point. However, American law says that when the President is in the White House—or when Congress is sitting—people cannot organise demonstrations directly under his nose.
That is a very important principle that dates back to the 19th century—
Let me just finish my sentence, and then of course I will give way.
This is a very important principle going back to earlier times when there were huge pressures on parliamentarians. For example, fascists in France tried to stop the French National Assembly meeting in the 1930s. That is why the same rules apply here. I am not saying that any one individual is going to stop any of us, but it is reasonable to say that around Parliament we do not have people permanently demonstrating, and when Parliament is sitting we do not have people permanently trying to break into it.
But surely the right hon. Gentleman recognises that this flies in the face of many of the great traditions of democracy that we have in this country. Nothing could be worse, in the current environment, than having the political class divorced ever more from the public at large.
I took part in Saturday’s demonstration, and that showed that the political class, at least those in it who care for public services, is not divorced—although part of it is, given that the Home Secretary said last week that the only march she had been on was to protect foxes, not to protect libraries and disabled people from cuts.
Our forefathers won the right to vote in the great demonstrations of the 1880s by shaking down the railings of Hyde park. Since my school and student days, I have marched, and marched again, in London, but I have not demanded to come and stay here permanently or to scream abuse at MPs coming into the House. I am happy to go up to Downing street to join protests that I associate myself with. That is right, fit and proper. This is not about the political class. Frankly, we have allowed a general degrading and devaluation of the role of MPs. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) is not disconnected. No hon. Member is disconnected: we go back to our constituencies and talk to far more people than any journalist, pontificator or other professional. I still say that we should protect the notion that Parliament is a special place and not just another venue for whatever protest people feel passionate about.
It is important to put it on the record that no evidence has been presented and no representations have been put forward that allege that the encampment opposite Parliament has prevented Members of Parliament from entering the House. All the evidence that has been brought before us shows that there is sufficient legislation to ensure that legal action will be taken against anybody who does impede an MP. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is not trying to allege that that has happened.
I will take the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).
My right hon. Friend seems to be drawing a distinction between demonstrations outside Parliament and elsewhere. Does he recall that a number of MPs, including me, were arrested outside South Africa house in 1984? The police decided to prosecute us, bizarrely, for behaviour that was offensive to a foreign mission, to which we happily pleaded guilty, given that the protest was against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The court found us innocent on the basis that we had a moral right to protest. As a result, there was a permanent picket outside South Africa house, despite many objections by the then South African embassy. That played its small part in ending apartheid. Surely my right hon. Friend recognises that the right to permanent protest is enshrined in judicial precedent in this country.
Yes; if one goes to the Chinese embassy in Portland place, the Falun Gong are always there. I am not talking about the other streets of London, and I am not talking about Downing street; I am talking exclusively about the law-making building of our nation, which requires slightly different consideration. I do not see that as the political class dividing itself from the population. I want more protest. However, that is different from saying that one particular issue can stay there for ever. One could be flippant and say that we could have a rota of issues. There could be a right-wing protest, when the fascists, the British National party and the UK Independence party can all come and make their little points.
I think that we are conspiring—perhaps that is an exaggerated word—to devalue the centrality of democratically elected legislatures when we allow protest and noise. Of course it is not preventing anybody from getting in, although hon. Members were prevented from coming in by the foxhunting protest.
I will give way briefly to the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Cities of London and Westminster, and then I must finish.
I am having trouble following the logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. He is right to say that this is a place of deliberation, and I think we all share the belief that there should not be protests inside this Chamber, other than those made by Members of Parliament. However, we are not talking about that, we are not talking about protests in the Members’ Lobby or Central Lobby, and we are not even talking about allowing protests within the precincts of the Palace. We are talking only about protests outside the Palace of Westminster. That is outside of where the deliberation is happening. I would love him to explain why he thinks it is all right to protest outside Downing street, but not outside the Palace.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept the fear that many of us in this Chamber feel, that once we go down the path of saying that Parliament—
Order. Being an apprentice Deputy Speaker, I should have reminded the right hon. Gentleman the first time he failed to do so that he must respond to the intervention that he has taken.
I am so sorry. I was just trying to put the interventions together to save time—your time, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I shall try to explain my point to the hon. Member for Cambridge. It is a concept common in many countries, and Britain can exclude itself from it, that the legislators of the democracy should be able to come to the area around the legislature—not around the Executive, not outside Downing street, not in the great centres where people gather such as Trafalgar square or Hyde park, and not anywhere else, such as outside embassies or town halls, but outside Parliament—without being told directly how or on what to vote at that moment. Anybody can come to my surgery on a Saturday or write to me to tell me how to vote. We have colluded in saying that Parliament needs to be protected from the people, which is why we have the absurd security systems that are now in place. If we do not re-establish the principle of parliamentarianism being something that requires reflection, debate and deliberation, with all of us voting in the Aye or the No Lobby to pass a law, and if we say that Parliament is simply an adjunct to a process of protest, it will weaken Parliament.
I will take the next intervention, but I will then sit down because other colleagues may want to speak.
I will be very brief. Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that many of us fear that this will be the thin end of the wedge? The moment we say that Parliament is special, people can say that every local government chamber is special, then that Downing street is special, then that all our courts are special. We have a passion and a love for living in an open, democratic society. I disagree profoundly with many of the protestors who have been in my constituency, and obviously with the violent disturbances, but peaceful protestors are the essence of the democracy that we all hold close to our heart.
I am happy to accept the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s point of view. Arguments have been held for 200 or 300 years about whether Parliament is different from the Executive, and whether elected representatives have something called privilege—not just privilege to speak in Parliament but privilege to come here and make up their minds on how to speak and vote as they think best.
We have been talking about an individual, and I admire his sacrifice over a number of years, but let us remember what happened not so long ago when passions were so high that the very security of this place was changed. As a result, the one, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 demonstrators who had filled Parliament square for their particular moment, expressing their right to protest directly to parliamentarians within the narrow area around Parliament, found that they had prevented many other citizens from being able to enter freely into the House of Commons to discuss matters with us calmly and peacefully.
There is a difference of opinion, and I respect everybody’s point of view. I am just dismayed that compared with when I came into the House, the level of security has changed, denying people access to MPs, as a result of protests that have gone too far and gone wrong. That has caused us some damage. I see quite good rules working in other democracies. If anybody wants to be arrested in Parliament square, or walk through it to make a protest and move on, so be it. However, the notion that there should be a permanent encampment or that Parliament square should be a place where anybody can come to protest at any time goes just a bit too far.
I respect the views of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I do not agree with them, but I respect them and the way in which he expressed them. However, I strongly support the provisions in the Bill.
I respect the right to protest, but a number of speakers in the debate have conflated or confused the issue of protest with that of the encampment outside. This is not a personality-driven debate, or it should not be, and one should not sentimentalise the issues involved. I wish to focus, I hope succinctly, on the rights and views of people other than the handful of individuals who have been camped outside for a prolonged period.
People have the right of quiet enjoyment of Parliament square and the facilities therein. I remind hon. Members that the statues have been put up over many years by public subscription. The public have a right to enjoy them, but for at least the past six months there have been fences around them. The taxpayers—not only the residents of the cities of Westminster and London, but people who come from far and wide to Parliament square and Parliament—have the right to use the park, and perhaps have a lunch sandwich.
Some consideration ought also to be given to the servants and agents of this place, and to the police who help to guard it and have to stand in very close proximity to the protest all day for month after month.
I am sorry, I cannot give way, because I have been told that I have only two minutes.
The reality is that the encampment is not a traditional form of protest, as it has been described. In my respectful submission, the problem does not have much to do with aesthetics, either. I, for one, am not really interested in what the protest looks like. I am interested in the rights of others to use the square without their quiet enjoyment being obstructed. The nuisance factor also has to be taken into consideration.
The question of sleeping impedimenta is one of fact and degree. We frequently ask police constables to exercise their discretion in many areas of law, some of which are difficult to define, which is part of the reason why we must give them discretion. The term “reasonable” cannot be easily susceptible to definition, because what is “reasonable” will vary depending on the individual circumstances of the event.
We in this country pride ourselves on protest and I certainly support the right to protest, but there must be some balance. Nowhere else in the world would put up with that type of protest over such a prolonged period. That does not mean that other countries are undemocratic for not putting up with 10 years of an encampment—of course they are democratic. They proudly maintain their democracy, and so would we, but we must balance the right of the handful of people who wish to live in Parliament square to the disadvantage of others, and bear in mind the rights of the latter.
Hon. Members have asked, “What harm is being done by the protest?” Criminal damage is one example of harm. Anything that causes action to be taken by another amounts to criminal damage if it means undertaking repair work. Nuisance, noise, hygiene and health and safety issues, and the loss and effect on tourism, also indicate harm. Such persistent protests do harm. We seek not to stop demonstrations, but just to stop people permanently encamping and sleeping in the square, and disguising that as a right to protest.
I shall be very brief and make only a couple of comments, because the Minister will need a few minutes to speak, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will no doubt wish to respond to the debate for a couple of minutes before 5 o’clock. This has been a good debate; we also had one in Committee, when hon. Members on both sides raised many of the issues that we have debated this afternoon.
The Opposition support the Government in the repeal of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 provisions. On both sides of the House, there is a general recognition that despite the intention, those provisions went much further than any of us would have wanted. For example, a woman was arrested for reading out the names of the war dead. Many of us—perhaps all of us—thought that inappropriate.
The Opposition agree with the repeal of the SOCPA provisions, but our position has always been that there is a need to balance the right to protest with the right of others to enjoy Parliament, and to protect their freedom, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) said. We want to balance freedoms and to protect the right to protest.
In Committee, we concentrated on the workability of the Bill. I say to the Minister that considerable problems remain. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and my hon. Friends. He has carefully drafted, obviously with some help, a set of alternatives. I do not agree with his alternative, but he has also sought to address some of the problems that the Government seek to address.
I am surprised that the Minister has tabled only two Government amendments—57 and 58—to deal with one of the major problems with the Bill, namely that reasonable force can be used not only by a constable, but by an authorised officer of the council. In the Opposition’s view, the amendments simply do not go far enough. If my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington were minded to press amendment 185 to a Division, he would find support on the Opposition Front Bench.
Why do the Government amendments not go far enough? The Bill still allows an authorised officer to do all sorts of things with respect to activities in the prohibited area of Parliament square. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) pointed out that even with the Government amendment, the Bill still gives the authorised officer—the council employee—significant powers to seize and retain property in the area described in clause 144(1). That is an extension of the power that one would expect authorised officers to have in any circumstances. This is the policing of public protest—not littering, loud music or neighbour nuisance—and the involvement of anybody other than a warranted police officer would be a dangerous extension of power to people who are not servants of the Crown.
The devil will be in the detail. There is still not an adequate definition—the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) and I debated this in Committee—of “sleeping equipment”. Lawyers will have a field day. The hon. Gentleman is right that we would expect an officer to act reasonably and so on, but there will be endless litigation over what reasonableness means in the Bill. What does “sleeping equipment” mean? Sleeping out? Sleeping on concrete? Is the concrete “sleeping equipment”? That is the sort of debate that we have started to get into. What would be the consequences of displacing this sort of activity? My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made this point. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster will find that if we deal with the protest outside, it will simply move across the road or down the road, and similar problems will persist. In repealing the legislation—we support the repeal of SOCPA—the Government need to be extremely careful that they do not find themselves in exactly the same situation as the previous Government: with unworkable legislation that simply results in many court actions as people seek to exercise their right to protest.
This useful debate has given the House the opportunity to discuss an important issue. We made it clear when we introduced our proposals that it was right and proper that the House should have a proper say on the Bill’s provisions relating to Parliament square, and I believe that the House has had that say this afternoon.
There are clearly issues of agreement on both sides of the House. The right to protest is a cherished and important right that the Government seek to uphold, and it is a positive step forward if the Opposition Front-Bench team accept that fact and accept that the draconian approach that in many ways had become their hallmark was a wrong turn. I certainly welcome therefore the comments from the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about scrapping SOCPA, which had a very chilling effect on the right to protest. That is why one of the fundamental effects of the Bill will be to scrap those provisions and to return to treating Parliament square the same, in many ways, as the rest of the country.
The question before us relates to the extent of the right to protest. I think that it has been accepted that it is not an exhaustive right or something that we can do to the nth degree, and that there are limits to the right to protest. In her evidence to the Bill Committee, Shami Chakrabati made that point very clearly. We are discussing the limits to and the extent of that right. We have to take a step back and say, “We have that right to protest, but what is the issue at hand?” The issue at hand is that the right to protest does not mean the right to permanent encampment. That is at the heart of what we are seeking to address and why the provisions in the Bill are structured in the way they are.
I hear those who say that it does not make any difference, that it is not a problem and that we should not be seeking to introduce changes in respect of Parliament square and the surrounding area that contrast with the rest of the country. However, I would make the point that the square has been fenced off for six months to allow remedial and repair work, and has therefore been unavailable, which has clearly affected not just people’s access to it, but the right to protest there. That is why it is important that we examine the issue, and why the proposals in the Bill reflect that approach.
Is it not true that the vast majority of the public would think that any encampment outside Parliament should go? I have heard a lot of speeches this afternoon about why it should stay, but the vast majority of our public would say, “Get rid of it. It shouldn’t be there.”
The act of protest does not by default give individuals the right to erect permanent encampments in Parliament square or on the pavements outside it. That is the essence of what we are proposing. We want to protect the right to protest, but that does not mean that we endorse the permanent encampment that has arisen and that, in essence, has deprived others of access to that space.
I heard the points that the hon. Member for Gedling made about practicability and workability—in some ways he summarised the reasonable discussions and detailed debate that we had in Committee. However, we have had discussions with the Metropolitan police—he will be aware of the exchange of correspondence—and I have spoken to Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens in recent days, in advance of this afternoon’s debate. One of the challenges has been about differences of ownership, between the Greater London authority and Westminster city council, and ensuring that the proper protocols are agreed. However, with those protocols in place, our strong belief is that our proposals are workable; otherwise we would not be bringing them before the House.
I hear the debate about the language and the drafting. The Government recognise that any new law will be robustly tested by determined individuals—indeed, that would be the case for any proposals. We have therefore sought to capture attempts to circumvent the legislation that have been raised with us by the police. However, that necessarily carries the potential of capturing others, which is why we have allowed some discretion, as it is important that the provisions should be used proportionately.
Let me turn to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I suppose that the debate comes down to the context and this issue of a permanent encampment, which we think is so significant. As we have heard, Parliament square is a world heritage site, surrounded by important historic buildings such as Westminster abbey. Given its location opposite the Houses of Parliament and the limited space, we are seeking to balance the competing and legitimate needs of members of the public who come to the area as visitors or protesters, with those of Members of Parliament and others who need to be able to carry out their daily work and enjoy the space.
The Government are clear that no one particular person or group of persons should take over the area to the detriment of others. Encampments remaining on Parliament square in defiance of the byelaws have caused significant damage to the garden and the space, which has underlined the unworkability of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act thus far. The encampments have required considerable remedial work by the Greater London authority, during which time nobody has been able to enjoy the unique space. In relation to the democracy village occupation, the courts found that Parliament square gardens were not a suitable area for any sort of encampment. More recently, the High Court has said:
“Parliament Square Gardens is not a suitable location for prolonged camping; such camping is incompatible with the function, lawful use and character”
of Parliament square gardens, and
“it is also inconsistent with the proper management of the area as a whole”.
The Government and, I think, most Members of this House and the other place would agree with the court’s findings.
Encampments prevent the public’s enjoyment of this unique location and deter people from visiting the area. They even deter and prevent others from protesting, although I have heard the points that have been made in that regard. Let me stress again that we are not seeking to prevent people from protesting on or around Parliament square. We are not seeking to put time limits on protests or to regulate them in that way.
The package of measures in part 3 is aimed at preventing encampments, at dealing with disruptive activity by anyone on Parliament square and at giving the police and authorised officers of the Greater London authority and Westminster city council powers to ensure that Parliament square can be enjoyed by all. So, for example, anyone who pitches a tent in the controlled area defined in the Bill may be directed to take it down. If they fail to comply with the direction, the tent may be seized and they may be charged with an offence.
I welcome the constructive debate that we had in Committee, during which Opposition Members recognised the problem with the current SOCPA provisions and acknowledged the need for new measures. We have heard this afternoon, however, that some of them do not agree with our proposals and continue to have issues. We have introduced a co-ordinated package of provisions that will link into byelaws to ensure that the issues of displacement that have been identified are addressed.
We have listened and reflected on what has been said, which is why the Government have tabled amendments 57 and 58, which deal with authorised officers using powers of force. We continue to believe that the right of authorised officers properly to manage and support the activities in Parliament square, and people’s enjoyment of the square, requires them to have the ability to give directions and to seize items, but not to use reasonable force, because that is the role of the police. That is why we have tabled amendments 57 and 58. They reflect the point that has been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and others inside and outside the House. We believe that the package in the Bill strikes a proportionate balance.
We will continue our discussions with the police, with Westminster city council and with the Greater London authority on the management of Parliament square, and on any moves that might result in more co-ordinated ownership and management of the site. Fundamentally, we believe in the right to protest, but that right does not mean permanent encampments. The measures before the House are proportionate and appropriate, because they will enable those who want to protest to have their say outside the House while ensuring that that does not result in the permanent despoiling of Parliament square.
I wish to press amendments 162 and 185 to a vote. The debate has been helpful in that it has reassured me that we support the right to protest. I look forward to Members joining me in protests in the coming months. There is a disagreement over the difference between protest and permanent protest. There is a tradition of effective permanent protest in this country, and that is the tradition that we are seeking to support.
There is a basic human right, enacted in legislation in this Parliament, to assembly, association and speech. Members must have due cause if they want to tamper with that right in any way. If there is an argument that the encampment causes noise, nuisance or any form of obstruction, legislation already exists to deal with that. Indeed, the Minister has just demonstrated that the court is now dealing with the matter in relation to the grassed area. There is therefore no need for the House to waste its time in introducing specific legislation for a small encampment of principled people who are reminding us of the consequences of our actions in this House.
Let me advise Members and warn that we will come back again on this issue. What we are doing here is counter-productive: it will cause further conflict; it will put police officers in an impossible position and council officers in an even worse position. The encampment will move elsewhere and the Government will then have to come back to the matter, as the last Government tried to do with their Civil Contingencies Bill to ban protest elsewhere and outside other public buildings. I believe that this is an error.
I wish the coalition parties had adhered to their promise before the election to—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 30 March).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order 83E), That the amendment be made.
31 March 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).
Prohibited activities in controlled area of Parliament Square
Amendment proposed: 185, in page 95, line 8, leave out ‘or authorised officer’.—(John McDonnell.)
31 March 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Power to seize property
Amendments made: 57, page 97, line 6, leave out
‘The constable or authorised officer’
and insert ‘A constable’.
Amendment 58, page 97, line 7, leave out from ‘under’ to end of line 8 and insert ‘this section’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Temporary class drug orders
Amendments made: 53, page 215, line 26, after first ‘that’, insert ‘—
(a) the Secretary of State has consulted in accordance with section 2B and has determined that the order should be made, or
(b) the Secretary of State has received a recommendation under that section that the order should be made.
‘(3A) The Secretary of State may make the determination mentioned in subsection (3)(a) only if’.
Amendment 54, page 216, line 6, at end insert—
‘(6A) The power of the Secretary of State to make an order under this section is subject to section 2B.’.
Amendment 55, page 216, line 10, at end insert—
‘2B Orders under section 2A: role of Advisory Council etc
(1) Before making an order under section 2A the Secretary of State—
(a) must consult as mentioned in subsection (2), or
(b) must have received a recommendation from the Advisory Council to make the order.
(2) The Secretary of State must consult—
(a) the Advisory Council, or
(b) if the order is to be made under section 2A(1) and the urgency condition applies, the person mentioned in subsection (3).
(3) The person referred to in subsection (2)(b) is—
(a) the person who is for the time being the chairman of the Advisory Council appointed under paragraph 1(3) of Schedule 1, or
(b) if that person has delegated the function of responding to consultation under subsection (1)(a) to another member of the Advisory Council, that other member.
(4) The “urgency condition” applies if it appears to the Secretary of State that the misuse of the substance or product to be specified in the order as a drug subject to temporary control, or the likelihood of its misuse, poses an urgent and significant threat to public safety or health.
(5) The duty of the Advisory Council or any other person consulted under subsection (1)(a) is limited to giving to the Secretary of State that person’s opinion as to whether the order in question should be made.
(6) A recommendation under subsection (1)(b) that a temporary class drug order should be made may be given by the Advisory Council only if it appears to the Council that—
(a) the substance or product is a drug that is being, or is likely to be, misused, and
(b) that misuse is having, or is capable of having, harmful effects.’.
Amendment 59, page 219, line 24, after ‘2A,’ insert ‘2B,’.—(James Brokenshire.)
Amendment made: 56, line 3 after ‘alcohol’, insert ‘, and for the repeal of provisions about alcohol disorder zones;’.—(James Brokenshire.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I start by thanking the hon. Members who sat on the Public Bill Committee for the scrutiny they have given this important piece of legislation. I thank in particular my ministerial colleagues, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), for their work in Committee. I also thank all hon. Members who contributed on Report, when we had further detailed debate about the impact and implications of the Bill. In addition, I thank all the officials and Officers and staff of the House who have enabled the Committee’s work to take place.
The Prime Minister recently said that we had the best police force in the world, and I agree, but that does not mean that there is no room for improvement. The Bill will help our courageous police in the fight against crime, and police and crime commissioners will reconnect the police with the public they serve. An overhaul of the licensing regime will help the police and local communities to crack down on problem drinking premises, and temporary banning powers will stop the harm from so-called legal highs. Powers to deal with permanent encampments will give Parliament square back to the British public and a fairer process for universal jurisdiction arrest warrants will allow Britain to engage properly with prominent international statesmen.
Bearing in mind the reorganisation and costs involved, will the Home Secretary confirm that she will be at Monday’s debate on police cuts?
Yes; what a strange question.
I have been generous in giving way once already, but I can never resist giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
Those words will not do her any good I am afraid, but I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way.
I am sure we all agree that we have the best police force in the world. Has the Home Secretary come across Chief Constable Steve Finnigan of the Lancashire constabulary, who has said that
“we can do an awful lot of work around back-office, around efficiency, around bureaucracy and certainly in Lancashire, in my force, we are doing a lot of that, but we cannot leave the frontline untouched and that is because of the scale of the cuts”?
Will the Home Secretary be straight with the British people and say that there are going to be front-line cuts because of what she is bringing in?
Many chief constables have made the point that what is happening will not mean that there will be no change to front-line services but that they can protect front-line services. That is exactly what chief constables such as the chief constable of Greater Manchester have made clear. There might need to be reform in front-line services, but that does not mean a reduction in the front-line services available to members of the public.
Directly elected police and crime commissioners will bring real accountability to local policing. They will ensure that the police focus on what local people want and not on what the national Government think they want.
I see that the piece of paper has been passed to the right hon. Lady, so I will give way to her.
I want to follow up that point with the Home Secretary. She is right, I have the full quote to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred, which was from the “Today” programme. Chief Constable Finnigan was asked:
“You are chief constable of Lancashire which has a bit of both”—
meaning urban and rural areas—
“are you going to have to reduce frontline policing in order to meet the budget cuts that the government wants to see?”
His answer was: “I absolutely am”. Faced with that categorical statement from a chief constable, will she admit that front-line services are being hit as a result of her decisions?
I have to say to the right hon. Lady that her intervention and that of the hon. Member for Rhondda betray the difficulty that the Labour party has had, both in government and in opposition, with this issue of front-line services. Chief constables such as Chief Constable Steve Finnigan have said that they are determined to protect the front-line service that is provided to members of the public. There is a difference between the service that can be provided and the number of police who are there, and the trouble with Labour is that it has always focused on numbers. What we have seen recently is that there are great variations in, for example, invisibility and availability of the police who are out there on the streets being seen by members of the public. Percentages can vary from 9% of police being available and visible to the public to 17%, as in Merseyside. If that highest figure was followed by every force, then just under 8,000 more officers would be visible and available to members of the public. This is about the efficient use of resources. Police and crime commissioners, as I have said, will bring accountability to local policing.
I might be able to help the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman in a few minutes, as I am going to make a specific comment in relation to Wales. I suspect that they are going to ask me about Wales, so it might be in their interest to wait until then before they intervene.
I have been through police numbers with my chief constable in Hampshire, and there is not going to be any change to police numbers in community policing and in the policing of serious crime, or in the number of police who deal with sex offenders.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is a good example, and there are other examples of forces such as Gloucestershire, where the number of officers visible and available has been increased by the chief constable as a result of what he has been able to do in other ways to deal with his budget.
We have already given communities across England and Wales access to detailed street-level crime and antisocial behaviour data. Only two months after launching the country’s first ever nationwide street-level crime maps, the website has received over 400 million hits, so we are already giving power back to the public. The Bill takes that local accountability to the next stage. The Association of Chief Police Officers has been fully engaged in the process of refining our proposals. We have listened to its suggestions, and to those of hon. Members. We have responded and been able to accommodate some of those suggestions.
We have included provision for each chief officer to become a corporation sole, which will allow them to employ staff and will give them greater control over their own force. We have strengthened the proposed oversight arrangements by including provisions for candidates to be subject to confirmation hearings by police and crime panels, who will be able to veto an appointment with a three-quarters majority. We have amended the Bill so that anyone who has been convicted of an imprisonable offence at any time will be unable to stand as a PCC. Any PCC convicted of such an offence would automatically be disqualified from office.
We have made a commitment with ACPO, the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Police Authority Chief Executives to develop a protocol setting out the distinct role and powers of chief officers, PCCs and other bodies in the new policing landscape. It will be my responsibility as Home Secretary to issue a strategic policing requirement for the response to national threats. These are all sensible and constructive changes that will give us a better Bill and ultimately an even better police service. I thank ACPO and hon. Members for their help with that.
I am delighted that in Committee, the Opposition conceded the principle of democratic reform in policing. Unfortunately, they are still suggesting the wrong type of reform. Only 7% of people have even heard of police authorities, and only 8% of local authority wards in England and Wales are represented on their police authority. Police authorities are not effective at doing what they are supposed to do. Fewer than one in three police authorities inspected last year were found to be performing well. They have neither the democratic mandate to set police priorities nor the capability to scrutinise police performance, so tinkering at the edges of police authorities, as the Opposition spokesmen seemed to suggest in Committee, will not do.
On democratic accountability, does the Home Secretary accept that voter turnout is likely to be much higher in low-crime, leafy suburbs than in high-crime, poorer areas, so the democratic mandate is likely to contradict directly the need to prioritise the focus on crime? What is more, people will lose access to the interface with MPs, Assembly Members, councillors and so on, so there will be less democracy, less crime prevention and more cost.
I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman says, particularly the idea that people who live in high-crime areas will somehow have less incentive to take an interest in the way in which their local area is policed or in going out to vote for PCCs. It is in precisely those areas that people are concerned about what is happening to local policing. We need a properly elected and accountable individual, with the mandate, the capabilities and the powers to set police priorities locally and to hold their chief constable to account for police performance.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am conscious of time and wish to make a little more progress.
The Opposition’s scepticism about the merits of directly elected police and crime commissioners will be tested when it comes to deciding whether to field candidates for the elections next year. Indeed, according to media reports, the former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, intends to run as a candidate. Before moving on, I would like to make it clear that responsibility for policing and policing governance in Wales is reserved to this House. This House has determined that the provisions for police and crime commissioners should be implemented in Wales and in England. There cannot be two tiers of governance for a police service whose officers and assets so regularly cross the regional boundary between England and Wales in tackling crime.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
The right hon. Gentleman may wish to intervene after I have completed my point about the vote that took place in the National Assembly for Wales. I think that it is regrettable that the Assembly did not agree to the legislative consent motion that would have allowed police and crime panels to reflect the unique nature of local government in Wales, as we wanted. That would have included giving the Welsh Assembly Government a seat on the police and crime panels in Wales.
The reason why Assembly Members did not endorse it is quite simply because they do not believe in the idea of a directly elected police commissioner. They did not want the panels and so voted against the proposal. Unfortunately, this place decided to ride roughshod over their wishes and the wishes of democratically elected people in Wales, thus showing little of the respect agenda and acting in a hugely undemocratic way.
That is not correct. It is precisely because we respect the Assembly’s decision that we are removing police and crime panels from local government structures in Wales. The Assembly had the opportunity to put in place a legislative consent motion that would have enabled that to take place. Such a motion was tabled by the Welsh Assembly Government, but they then chose not to support it, even though they had put it forward. As a result, the view of the Welsh Assembly was that police and crime panels should not form part of the local government structure in Wales. Instead, the PCPs will be freestanding bodies.
I want to make it clear that in taking a power to appoint those freestanding bodies I will not be telling, instructing or forcing any authority to do anything. I will invite local authorities to nominate a member to the PCP for each force area, and if an authority fails to nominate a member, I will invite members directly while having regard to the political balance within the force area. I think that the amendments will ensure that the appropriate checks and balances on police and crime commissioners can apply in all force areas in England and in Wales.
Order. I am listening carefully to the Home Secretary, who has given way generously, which is appreciated by the House, but I gently point out to both Front Benches that there are some Back Benchers who would like the chance of a snippet as well if the opportunity presents itself.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
We have also taken the opportunity in the Bill, as Members can see, to make improvements to the police complaints system. There are of course other important aspects to the Bill, notably those relating to licensing. I think that Labour’s disastrous Licensing Act 2003 made the problem of binge drinking in this country worse, not better. Far from giving us the continental café culture that we were promised at the time, the Act did nothing to help police and local communities in their ongoing fight against alcohol-fuelled crime and disorder. That is why the Bill will help to turn the tide by ensuring that all those affected by licensed premises have a chance to have a say in the licensing process, allowing early morning restriction orders and the late-night levy on licensed premises opening after midnight to help pay for late-night policing and other services, such as taxi marshals or street wardens.
We have brought forward an amendment to introduce locally set licensing fees so that the fees can achieve what they were intended to, which is to recover fully the costs of licensing authorities in discharging their duties. I think that local government will feel that this is long overdue. We have also repealed the previous Administration’s legislation on alcohol disorder zones, and there was overwhelming support in our consultation for doing that. Those measures, together with a number of others, show that we are committed to stopping the harm caused by alcohol abuse.
As well as measures to tackle alcohol abuse, we will be providing powers to crack down on the damage caused by so-called legal highs. The Bill introduces the power to make year-long temporary class drug orders, which will allow us to take swift action to ban temporarily substances that have been specifically developed to get around existing drugs legislation but that can still cause significant harm.
I hope that the whole House will agree that for too long Parliament square has been subjected to unacceptable disruption and damage from the long-term encampment.
No, the whole House does not agree, and I should have pointed out that the hon. Gentleman made his views very clear in our previous debate and through the amendments that he spoke to.
The Bill contains, I think, a tough but proportionate package of measures to deal with encampments and other disruptive activity, and we have responded to Members’ concerns about the powers for authorised officers.
The Bill also makes sensible changes to the procedures for obtaining an arrest warrant for universal jurisdiction offences. We have heard the objections from a small number of hon. Members on the matter, but the Government continue to believe that the requirement to seek the agreement of the Director of Public Prosecutions that a case has a realistic chance of success is a fair and proportionate measure.
The Bill is a balanced package of measures to tackle real problems in our society. It includes directly elected police and crime commissioners, to give people back power over policing locally and to help to cut crime; tougher rules on licensing and drugs to help stop the harm that alcohol-fuelled disorder and legal highs can cause; and appropriate powers to restore the right to peaceful protest outside the mother of Parliaments, while removing the long-term encampments that cause so much damage, disruption and distress. We have had very good scrutiny of, and good debates about, the Bill. I believe that it is a very good Bill, and I commend it to the House.
After 50 hours of debate and evidence, the Commons stage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill has come to a close. The Members from all parts who endured the Committee stage will doubtless be delighted that in 19 minutes they will be released from custody. The Policing and Criminal Justice Minister will, I am sure, be relieved to have reached the end of this round of interrogation and hope to be released without charge, with his DNA destroyed and his fingerprints wiped.
I thank all Opposition Members for their work, but I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), aka Station Sergeant Coaker, who has ably led our investigative team, and of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), Custody Sergeant Tami, who has granted but few bail applications and always on the toughest terms.
Members have had the pleasure of debating the details of pub drinking, the definitions of a duvet and whether a toothbrush counts as sleeping equipment, and during the passage of the Bill we have welcomed some of the Government’s measures to which the Home Secretary referred, such as those on supporting local government, on licensing and on universal jurisdiction.
Other measures still have us baffled, however. The last time the Home Secretary spoke in the House on legislation she told us that the Government offered
“a chance to roll back the creeping intrusion of the state into our everyday lives, and to return individual freedoms to the heart of our legislation.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 205.]
Today, she has defended a Bill that lets councils leap to the barricades when their byelaws are breached. She will support them in confiscating dogs that foul verges, guitars that are played near churches and even shoes that leave mud on the pavements. More importantly, she has supported a Bill that puts at risk centuries of independent policing, free from political interference, and concentrates considerable policing powers in the hands of one individual with hardly any checks and balances. That is hardly a defence of traditional British liberties.
I hesitate to interrupt what started as a comic turn by the right hon. Lady, but she knows full well that throughout the debate on the Bill we have been at great pains to ensure that there is operational independence for chief officers and for forces. We will defend that operational independence. The police and crime commissioners do not have policing powers; they have powers to ensure that the police are accountable, and respond to local people.
That is what the right hon. Lady says, but where is the protocol? Time and again we have been told that there will be some sort of code of practice or some kind of protocol to reassure people that there will be operational independence, but where is it? We have not yet seen it, and the House is being asked to let the Bill go through without being given the opportunity to vote on such a protocol or agreement when it is reached. A draft has been given to the Association of Chief Police Officers, yet this week ACPO still raised some serious concerns about the way in which impartial policing will be protected, and that leaves us with considerable suspicions that she is not yet close to reaching an agreement with ACPO about how the operational protocol will perform. I have to say to the Home Secretary that asking the House to give consent to this Bill without providing crucial reassurances about the operational independence of our police is frankly irresponsible in the light of the traditional and historic British liberties that she has previously been so keen to defend.
During these 50 hours of debate, the Bill has not changed in its fundamentals. This period follows one in which crime fell by over 40%, public confidence in policing went up, and substantial improvements were made in the fight against crime. Yet instead of building on those improvements made under the Labour Government, this Government instead want to launch a massive experiment in governance alongside the steepest cuts in many generations.
The Government are putting considerable policing powers in the hands of individual politicians without any of the serious safeguards or checks and balances that are needed. We do not support the approach of elected police commissioners. During the passage of the Bill, we have tried to suggest ways of limiting the damage and providing additional checks and balances, yet each time they have been rejected. People want responsive and accountable policing, but they also want impartial policing that is accountable to the rule of law—a tradition secured in Britain since Peel. The Government face a grave challenge from the most senior police officers in the country, who have argued this week that that tradition is being put at risk by the Bill. ACPO said that
“the developing framework of safeguards is too undeveloped and uncertain, and in several respects too weak, to be confident that it will effectively ensure that this Peelian principle will not be compromised.”
That is a very serious charge.
We still wait for the protocol and for other explanations of how this will work. This is about the impartiality of our police force and the public perception of that impartiality. For the first time, policing powers will be concentrated in the hands of individual politicians, with hardly any checks and balances on what they do. The Home Secretary at least has to answer to Parliament. She has to persuade her Cabinet colleagues. She can be scrutinised, she can be challenged, and she can even be sacked if she makes a real mess of it—which I am sure, of course, that she will not—but a police and crime commissioner is there for four years, with just a toothless watchdog to keep guard in between.
The right hon. Lady is continuing to use the term “policing powers” in relation to the responsibilities of the police and crime commissioners. That is inaccurate and wrong. These individuals will not be “policing”—they will be elected to hold the chief constable to account to ensure that the local voice is heard and that what local people want in policing is being undertaken. There will be checks and balances through the police and crime panels. She talks about politicians having a relationship with the chief constable in relation to operational independence. Politicians already have a relationship with the chief constable through the police authority.
Unfortunately, none of those reassurances has been enough to convince the most senior chief constables in the land that their operational independence will be safeguarded. That is the primary issue that this House should be worried about. We do not think that the Home Secretary has done enough to, for example, provide enough powers for the police and crime panels to allow them a stronger role as checks and balances in the system. Time and again, she has not provided enough safeguards for national policing. She will know that some experts have raised concerns about corruption, too. Of course, the public do not want this either. A YouGov poll commissioned for Liberty found that 65% of people preferred to have a chief constable reporting to a police authority, compared with 15% who wanted her reforms.
Then, of course, there is the cost: £100 million to be spent on elections and bureaucracy at a time when 2,000 of the most experienced officers are being forced into early retirement. If she ditched the police and crime commissioners and put that money back into policing, she could save almost a third of those jobs.
I will give way if the right hon. Gentleman will tell us what he would do to safeguard the jobs of the 2,000 experienced police officers whom he is pushing off the front line as a result of his cuts.
The right hon. Lady challenged us on cost. Can she tell us how much her proposal for directly elected police authority chairs would cost, and is she aware that it would cost considerably more than our proposal?
My proposal is to ditch all of it, and that would save £100 million. [Interruption.] I am afraid that it is. We have offered Government Members several ways to limit the damage of their proposals if they want to protect British freedoms. If they really want to do something sensible, they should save £100 million by ditching it altogether. That is what we will be voting for this evening.
Most importantly, this drastic re-engineering at the top of policing—this massive experiment in governance—comes in the middle of the deepest cuts that police forces have had to face for many generations; at a time when 12,500 officers and 15,000 police staff will go; at a time when a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary shows that 95% of police officers are not in back-office work; and at a time when front-line services across the country are being hit. If the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice continue to deny that front-line services are being hit, they will just show how out of touch they are, not just with the police but with communities across the country who can already see changes happening in their areas and know exactly who is to blame. We know that neighbourhood police officers who want to stay in their jobs are being cut, and that steep cuts are being made in probation, youth services and action to prevent crime.
We know why the Home Secretary really wants police and crime commissioners: so she has someone else to blame when it all goes badly wrong. These policies were not the Home Secretary’s idea. It was not her idea to cut 20% from the police—it was the Chancellor’s, but she did not fight to stop it. It was not her idea to bring in police and crime commissioners—it was the Prime Minister’s, but she did not stand up against it. It was not her proposal to cut DNA use and limit the power of the police—it was the Deputy Prime Minister’s, but she did not prevent it. She is ducking the big battles and is not standing up for people across the country, who need a Home Secretary who will defend their views. She is the Home Secretary, and in the end she carries the can. On Second Reading, she claimed that that crime would be cut as a result of these reforms. The truth is that she is starting to fear that the opposite is happening, and she needs someone to blame.
The clouds are gathering over the Government’s crime and policing plans, and we have raised the warning. We will vote against these plans today, just as we will vote against the police cuts next week. Ministers are creating a perfect storm; at some point it will blow, and it will be communities across the country who pay the price.
Several hon. Members
Order. A number of Members still wish to contribute and time is extremely limited. I appeal to the next Member who speaks to show consideration for others who wish to contribute.
As the only Member of this House who is a member of a police authority, I congratulate Ministers on this Bill and welcome it. The Home Secretary made it clear on Monday that she wanted elected commissioners “in charge”. She said just now that commissioners will make sure that what local people want to happen in policing will happen. That is to be welcomed.
Unfortunately, Opposition Members are on the wrong side of this debate. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), said that
“ACPO is clearly telling the Minister that he needs to amend the Bill”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 404.]
Apparently, the Association of Chief Police Officers thinks that
“the Bill places too much emphasis on local considerations giving disproportionate power to the”
elected commissioner. But it is this House that decides, not ACPO. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has said that we have to rebalance the tripartite system and put greater emphasis on the local and democratic element because too much power has gone to the centre. He was too diplomatic to say it, but ACPO has taken that power as much as the Home Office, and it needs to be rebalanced.
We will attempt to reach agreement on this protocol, and Ministers are no doubt working hard on that. We believe, of course, that in individual investigations and arrests there has to be complete independence for the police, and that politicians should have no influence in that. However, in wider issues such as policing policy, the budget and the priorities, it is surely right that there should be democratic control and oversight.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks, and associate myself with them. I also welcome the way that he set out the law on operational independence yesterday. Does he agree that it is vital that senior police officers and Opposition Members accept the legitimacy of elected representatives ensuring that the public get the policing that they deserve?
Of course I accept that, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments.
In the short time available, I want to make one point about an aspect of the Bill that I disagree with and how it is to be implemented, and that is the setting of the precept. There is a great focus on having more local democratic control, but there is perhaps some misunderstanding about how the panel will work in relation to the precept.
We have heard that Liberal Democrat Members want a strong panel, and that there is currently something called a veto in the Bill. However, the small print shows that the panel will have no veto on the precept. All that it will get to do is say, “We don’t like this.” The elected commissioner will have to take into account what it has said, but he can then impose what he wants. At the moment, it is the Secretary of State who is to have the power to intervene and hold a referendum, not the local panel. I hope that will be reconsidered and changed in the other place.
When the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice explained the relevant regulations on Report, he said it would be for the panel to put forward an alternative, and then the public would decide. In Committee, however, he said that it would be for the police and crime commissioner to give an alternative that was not excessive, and then the referendum would be to choose between the two. The local people should be in charge—that is the focus of the Bill, and I hope the matter will be considered in the other place. I commend the Bill.
Who would ever have believed that it would be a Conservative Home Secretary who took the Home Office back to the pre-Michael Howard era, when there was an overwhelming belief that neither the Home Secretary nor the Home Office had any part to play in reducing crime, co-ordination across boundaries or understanding the sophistication of organised criminality? Today, of course, e-crime and cybercrime can be added to that list.
Who would have believed that a Conservative Home Secretary would oversee a 20% cut in policing in this country, or chide a Labour Opposition for being obsessed with police numbers? I was proud to be the Home Secretary for the four years when we increased the uniformed police service by 15,000 officers. That was what the communities that we represented were demanding, and that was what they got. That was why there was a 43% reduction in overall crime in this country, and a much greater reduction in burglary and car crime.
Perhaps the Home Secretary could never in her wildest dreams have realised that she was going to come to the House and say that she could not present a protocol for the relationship between the new elected police and crime commissioners and chief constables, because the Government had not yet managed to put it together. They do not know what the relationship is going to be.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice rightly quoted the document about accountability that I presented to the last Home Secretary but one. He was right to say that I was concerned about power lying where accountability was held, and that, of course, is with the chief constable, the leadership team and the neighbourhood commanders who respond directly to the neighbourhood that they represent. I was proud to introduce the neighbourhood beat teams and police community support officers, which brought us close to our neighbourhoods.
Now we are going to see total confusion, with policy decided by an elected police commissioner and delivery decided by a chief constable who has to do as they are told, and with no proper, organised cross-boundary working. There will be a breakdown of direct accountability, including in the role of elected councillors, and of the partnership approach that is so crucial to the reduction of crime and the engagement of the citizenry. That engagement is part of the process needed to ensure that we can continue to have the tremendous legacy that we left the current Government.
I will try to be very brief. I thank Ministers for the helpful discussions that they have had with us and for the fact that we have managed to improve the Bill. I thank them for agreeing to our suggestions on removing the power for council officials to use reasonable force in protests and on ensuring that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs plays a role in assisting on temporary banning orders. I thank them very much for agreeing to those requests, because that has improved the Bill.
There are still some issues to discuss as the Bill continues through the Lords, but it is very good. Liberal Democrats stood on a manifesto commitment to bring democracy into such matters. Unlike the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I think the public should have their say. Democracy is very important.
I am particularly pleased that the Government propose to use a preferential voting system to elect the commissioner. That is a much fairer way of electing people who have such a critical role.
I am also pleased that we are unwinding some of the disgraceful measures introduced by the previous Government to stop protests in Parliament square. Unlike the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), I do not believe that Parliament should be protected from the public. Parliament and the police should be accountable to them, which is what will now happen.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
31 March 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Bill read the Third time and passed.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you have had a request for a statement, either tonight or tomorrow morning, from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), he told the Environmental Audit Committee this afternoon:
“we took the view collectively in Cabinet that we faced an immediate national crisis in the form of less growth and jobs than we needed”,
in relation to the recent Budget. We were not aware of those conditions before the Budget vote on Tuesday. The Minister accepts that we have an “immediate national crisis”, so has he given any indication of the need for a statement? We face unemployment at a 17-year high, a contracting economy, increasing VAT, and a jobs growth crisis in Britain. If the Minister is discussing with the Environmental Audit Committee, he should come to the House to explain himself.
I have received no request for any such statement, but I am reminded of why it was that the right hon. Gentleman once served as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to a former Prime Minister. I think we will leave it at that.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I was serving on the Environmental Audit Committee this afternoon. Given collective Cabinet responsibility and the admission of a national crisis, I wonder whether you could help us new Members of the House by saying whether, under the circumstances, Cobra should meet.
I have no knowledge of, intelligence about or opinion to volunteer on that matter, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is enjoying playing on the training ground, if I can put it like that.